Search This Blog

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Learn to Croon: Popular Male Singers of the Depression Era, by James A. Drake


                               DEPRESSION ERA

I am pleased  to once again present Dr. James A. Drake as our guest author.  Dr. Drake is a distinguished author of seven books, four of which are biographies of great opera singers of the twentieth century.   Dr. Drake earned the confidence of the legendary soprano Rosa Ponselle, with whom he collaborated on her autobiography for Doubleday and Company. With a foreword by Luciano Pavarotti, the Ponselle-Drake collaboration yielded excellent reviews and was named "Music Book of the Month" by the National Book Clubs of America in 1982.  The book was also promoted during a Metropolitan Opera broadcast in the 1982-83 season. By that time, Dr. Drake had been selected by Sara Tucker, widow of the celebrated tenor Richard Tucker, to write an authorized biography of the great singer, who had died in 1975 while at the peak of his career.  For the Tucker book, Luciano Pavarotti again contributed a foreword, and the biography was officially released at a special event hosted by maestro James Levine at Lincoln Center.  Once again, Dr. Drake's newest work received a "Music Book of the Month" award.

The setting is a college classroom in the 1930s, and the "professor" strutting in front of a chalkboard is Bing Crosby, the most popular radio and recording star of that era.  The subject of the "lecture" Professor Crosby is delivering to his eager students is "Learn to Croon":

Bing Crosby, from his initial prominence as the centerpiece of The Rhythm Boys, the jazz-singing trio of the Paul Whiteman orchestra in the late-1920s, until his last public performance a mere four days before his sudden death in Europe on October 14, 1977, was the embodiment of the "crooner," a vocal-music style characterized by a casual, relaxed, intimate, and often improvisational approach to the melody and lyrics of a song.

In the U.S., the rise of the crooner both coincided with and originated from the electrical amplification of recorded sound, which in turn stemmed from the engineering experiments of the Western Electric Company after World War One.  By 1924, these experimental developments were sufficiently refined to convince both the Victor Talking Machine Company, which was then the dominant disc-recording corporation in America, and the Columbia Phonograph Company, Victor's major competitor, to equip their studios with the new Western Electric recording technology.

The recording equipment which the new Western Electric process replaced was a variant of the technology that Thomas Edison had devised in 1877, when he invented the phonograph.   In the ensuing years, scores of other experimenters and technicians (and Edison himself) had improved his invention to a degree that enabled not only individual vocalists and instrumentalists, but also orchestras and choirs of moderate size, to be recorded with reasonable aural fidelity by the standards of what came to be called the "acoustical era" of sound recording.  That era began in the early 1890s, when acoustical recordings were first marketed on a national scale, and ended in 1925 when most of the major American record companies adopted the new electrical-recording process.  

Prior to 1925, male and female singers with strong voices and clear enunciation were in steady demand in the recording industry.  Individually, their recorded performances followed a rather predictable pattern:  a brief orchestral prelude comprised of woodwind and brass instruments, followed by the singer or instrumentalist performing the refrain of the song in a sonically clear and musically straightforward manner.  Time permitting (with the typical length of a phonograph record then averaging slightly under four minutes), the performer might repeat part of the refrain near the end of the recording.  The following Victor disc from 1911, performed by Harry Macdonough--one of the most popular and prolific singers in the early years of the recording industry, and later, under his given name, John S. Macdonald, an executive of the Victor Company--is typical of this straightforward singing style on phonograph records of the pre-World War One era:
This same straightforward style is evident in the vast majority of vocal recordings during the postwar years in the early 1920s.  This Victor disc of "My Buddy," a popular ballad of that era, is sung by Henry Burr, a pioneer recording artist and popular concert tenor, who recorded the song in July 1922:

With the advent of jazz and its escalating popularity on phonograph recordings after World War One, a younger group of vocalists broke with the metronomic singing style of Henry Burr, Harry Macdonough and other male vocalists from the first generation of popular-music recording artists.  Among this younger breed of performers was Jack Smith, or "Whispering Jack Smith" as he was known on early radio programs in his native New York City. 
Born in the Bronx as Jacob J. Schmidt in 1896, Smith was a jazz-influenced pianist and cabaret singer whose career had begun at the Irving Berlin Music Publishing Company, where he was employed as a "song plugger," demonstrating new popular tunes issued in sheet-music form by Berlin's publishing house.  In 1923, after leaving the Berlin company and performing in vaudeville, Smith was hired as a staff pianist by the WMCA radio station in New York City. 
Early in his tenure at WMCA, Smith began singing on the air to his own accompaniment, and was soon being advertised as "The Whispering Baritone."  (Whether he borrowed the "Whispering" name from another radio performer, Art Gillham, who was billed as "The Whispering Pianist" on Columbia recordings shortly before Smith's were released by Victor, was a matter of dispute between the two performers.)  As a complement to Smith's increasingly popular radio performances, he auditioned successfully for the Victor Company in the summer of 1925.  With Victor's new Western Electric recording equipment in place and in use for nearly six months, Smith recorded the popular hit "Cecilia" on September 15, 1925:

In quick succession, Smith recorded a sizable number of popular songs for the Victor Company and for its affiliate, the English "His Master's Voice" (HMV) label, each one featuring his distinctive blend of talking and singing the lyrics of a song, as in his September 1928 HMV recording of "Crazy Rhythm":

Three years earlier, in 1924, a contemporary of Whispering Jack Smith, the pianist and jazz singer Gene Austin, had written a "novelty song" (as it was described in the parlance of the time) and had successfully "plugged" the song to the Victor Company.  Essentially a self-taught pianist with an untrained singing voice, Austin had no prominence in show business and only minimal recording experience (he had made a few records anonymously for Vocalion, a low-priced record label, and had also made two recordings for the Edison label) when he auditioned his newly-written song for the Victor staff.  As a result of the audition, Victor's musical director, Nathaniel Shilkret, paired Austin with a more experienced Victor artist, Aileen Stanley, when they recorded Austin's new song, "When My Sugar Walks Down the Street," on January 30, 1925:

Decades later in a television interview, Austin recalled the rigors of the acoustical-recording process.  "When we made those old-type records, we had to sing into an octagonal metal funnel, which was called the 'horn' because that's what it looked like," he recalled.  "If two of us were singing, each of us had to project our voices into two separate horns so that the volume of our voices would be more or less the same.  We had to sing everything pretty loud because the recording machinery wouldn't pick up anything that was played or sung softly. "I made several offbeat records for a while," Austin said in the interview.  "I recorded some country songs, or 'hillbilly' music as it was called then, and I sang several more jazz tunes and even recorded a couple of blues numbers for the Victor Company.  "But then the new electric-recording process came in, and I could sing into an electric microphone instead of the horn, and I could sing at the normal volume of my voice.  That's when I changed my singing style and started concentrating on popular ballads.
"The head of the recording studios at Victor, Nat Shilkret, was the one who talked me into making that change.  He said, 'Gene, your singing voice has a soothing sound, and you ought to record soothing ballads.'  Well, I took Nat Shilkret's advice and I guess you could say that I hit the jackpot in 1927.  On the same day, I recorded two songs that put me on top almost overnight."  
Of the two ballads that Austin recorded at the Victor studios on Wednesday afternoon, September 14, 1927, the first, chronologically, was "My Melancholy Baby," a song that would be appropriated by generations of singers who came after Gene Austin:

The second recording Austin made on that September afternoon in 1927 swept the American public like no other phonograph recording had ever done previously:

Gene Austin's performance of "My Blue Heaven" is a laid-back rendition with a seemingly improvised musical flow that seems uninterrupted, perhaps even enhanced, by Austin's impromptu interjections of "uh-huh" and "doo, doo, doo-doo" as a cellist plays the melody.  His carefree vocal chorus, which was followed by a repetition of the melody in a bird-like warbling style, caught the immediate fancy of the record-buying public.  

For all its popularity, "My Blue Heaven" was just the beginning for the ambitious, suddenly-in-demand Gene Austin:  in rapid succession he recorded "There's a Cradle in Caroline," "The Lonesome Road" (which he wrote), "Bye, Bye, Blackbird," "Tonight You Belong To Me," "The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi," "Ramona," and "Girl of My Dreams," all of which added to his considerable fame and mounting royalties from his Victor recordings.  His 1929 recording of "Carolina Moon" was among his best-selling recordings:

Although the initial popularity of Whispering Jack Smith slightly preceded Austin's, it was Gene Austin who "was the first crooner, the one who gave the rest of us our start," according to Rudy Vallee, whose popularity superceded Austin's in the early 1930s.  A Yale alumnus (Class of 1927), Vallee, the son of a French-Canadian druggist, had spent his youth in Vermont and Maine, where he developed not only a passion for popular music but also a near-obsession with the saxophonist Rudy Wiedoeft.  "What the electric guitar is to rock music," bandleader and television personality Ozzie Nelson said in a 1974 interview, "the saxophone was in the 1920s and 1930s.  And the master of the saxophone was unquestionably Rudy Wiedoeft."  

In the early 1920s, Vallee even appropriated Wiedoeft's first name to replace "Hubert Vallee," his less euphonious christened name.  Although Rudy Vallee never developed more than a nominal command of the saxophone, his idol Rudy Wiedoeft's dazzling playing was captured in an early Warner Brothers Vitaphone film in which he demonstrated his technique with his sometime rival, saxophonist Bennie Kreuger:

After befriending Wiedoeft and winning his encouragement, Rudy Vallee played saxophone with a number of dance bands (including a stint in London in 1924) until he formed his own band, which he named the Yale Collegians, after his alma mater.  Vallee also began to sing to the patrons of the nightclubs and Broadway venues where he and his expanded band, now renamed the Connecticut Yankees, played regularly.  

Because his small, untrained voice did not project well, he adopted a tool from his years as the director of the Yale University football band:  a cheerleader's megaphone.  "My use of the megaphone," he wrote in his 1930 autobiography, Vagabond Dreams Come True, "came through absolute necessity as, although my voice is very loud when I speak or shout, when I use it musically it is not penetrating or strong ...  What I did was simply to risk the censure of public opinion by using [the megaphone] on every song ... because I believe that one of the biggest defects in most people who sing songs is that they get the melody out but not the words."

Throughout the 1930s, Vallee remained one of the most popular singers and radio personalities in the U.S.  His weekly radio program, "The Fleischmann Hour," introduced new songs and new performers who came to enjoy highly successful careers in music, drama, and films.  Originally broadcast from Manhattan's Heigh-Ho Club, which he owned at the time, Vallee's early radio performances began and ended with "Heigh-Ho, Everybody, Heigh-Ho," his first theme song, which he recorded for the Victor Company in 1929:

Earlier that year, Vallee was offered a film contract by RKO Radio Pictures, to star in a movie based loosely on his public personality, and featuring the songs he had made famous on radio and recordings.  The resulting film, The Vagabond Lover, released in 1929, featured a heavily-cosmetized Vallee playing and singing some of his early hit songs to actress Sally Blane, the sister of Loretta Young:

Although Vallee's legion of fans ensured the box-office success of The Vagabond Lover, the film was panned by critics and proved to be a lifelong embarrassment to Vallee.  

"According to the latest reports," he wrote in the second of his three autobiographies, "that film is shown only in prisons, and is otherwise used to fumigate theaters." Although his initial foray into film-making was a personal disappointment, Vallee's radio popularity, coupled with the steady stream of recordings he made for the Victor, Columbia, and the short-lived Durium "Hit of the Week" labels, made him one of the highest-paid entertainers in show business.  The lyrics of one of the songs he recorded, "Deep Night," were his own (with Charles Henderson writing the music), and eventually would be used as the introductory music for Bonnie and Clyde, Warren Beatty's classic film:

Rudy Vallee became especially identified with college-related songs in the 1930s, two of which became best-selling records for the Victor Company.  Both of these hit recordings had their roots in Vallee's college years at the University of Maine, which he had attended initially, and Yale University, to which he transferred after returning from his dance-band engagements in England.  This is his 1930 recording of the "Maine Stein Song":

The second of these college songs, which Vallee recorded in 1936, was his personal tribute to Yale, whose Whiffenpoof singers, a highly selective a cappella choral group of Yale seniors, had been a staple at the University since 1909.  Although the Yale administration and alumni organization strenuously objected to Vallee's commercialization of the song (partly because he had not been a Whiffenpoof member at Yale), Vallee's recording drew more public attention to the University than most of its athletic teams at the time: 

Because of his radio success and the popularity of his recordings, Vallee returned to Hollywood in 1934 to reprise his role as a singer and bandleader.  The resulting film, Sweet Music (which was also the title of one of his highly popular Victor discs), captured some of Vallee's best singing at the apex of his career, and also featured him conducting his band in a memorable performance by torch-singer Helen Morgan:

By the late-1930s, Vallee was concentrating most of his time on his extraordinarily popular radio program, and as a result his output of recordings--of which he had made as many as forty during 1929, his first year with the Victor Company--dwindled to a dozen a year, on average.  But in July 1937, after hearing a Corsican folk song during one of his frequent travels to the Mediterranean, he transformed the song into "Vieni, Vieni," which he recorded for Victor and which became one of his most popular recordings:

A crooning career of much shorter duration than Vallee's was that of the previously-mentioned Ozzie Nelson, a self-avowed Rudy Vallee imitator who, after graduating from Rutgers University, where he played varsity football, had studied saxophone and had adopted Vallee's nasalized singing and phrasing:

In a television interview in the 1970s, Nelson explained to an interviewer how he went about styling himself differently from Rudy Vallee.  His comments begin at approximately 18:10 in the interview:

Although Ozzie Nelson became a successful bandleader in the late 1930s, with his future wife, Harriet Hilliard, as his band's vocalist, his future fame lay in television as the producer, director and head writer of the popular television show, "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet," in the 1950s. In addition to Ozzie Nelson, several other singers cast themselves in the Rudy Vallee mold, including Will Osborne, a Canadian-born singer and bandleader.  Osborne's band, which he formed in 1929, became especially known for the "slide" playing style of its six-piece brass section.  This is the band's rendition of "Where Are You," with a vocal chorus by Osborne, which he recorded for the Decca label in November 1936:

Neither Will Osborne nor Ozzie Nelson during their brief singing careers, nor even Rudy Vallee at the peak of his massive popularity, was able to stem the fast-rising tide of Bing Crosby's prominence in the 1930s.  Which is not to say that Crosby lacked for any rivals early in his career.  Another young baritone, Russ Columbo, an Italian-American violinist who doubled as a singer, had a crooning style that for a time seemed to divide the radio and record-buying public between Columbo and Crosby.  

Although Crosby's popularity was already established on radio and recordings, the voice and musicianship of Russ Columbo, coupled with his move-star looks and engaging personality, presented a considerable challenge to Crosby's pre-eminence.  This is one of Columbo's performances from his 1933 film, Broadway Through a Keyhole:

As had Gene Austin in the late 1920s, Russ Columbo regularly recorded and added new titles to his recorded output--songs like "Paradise," "Sweet and Lovely," "You Call It Madness (But I Call It Love)," which he wrote, and "I See Two Lovers," among others.   But the song most associated with him was "Prisoner of Love," for which he wrote the music and which he recorded for the Victor Company in 1931:

Like Crosby, Columbo had has own network radio program, and off-the-air he was also seen frequently in Hollywood with Carole Lombard, whom he was rumored to be planning to marry.  But fate intervened in the cruelest of ways:  on September 2, 1934, while visiting a photographer friend who had an antique-gun collection, Columbo was shot in the forehead when his friend accidentally discharged an antique dueling pistol.  Six hours later, after unsuccessful brain surgery, Columbo died at the age of 26.

Bing Crosby, whom the media had portrayed as a rival to Columbo in what their press agents labeled the "Battle of the Baritones," was among the celebrities who attended Columbo's funeral services.  Some forty years later, on a New York late-night television show hosted by nostalgia specialist Joe Franklin, Crosby reminisced about his friendship with Columbo.  His comments begin at 3:47 in this video, which is the only televisioninterview in which he spoke about Russ Columbo:

Although the bandleader Paul Whiteman gave Bing Crosby his start when he hired The Rhythm Boys and helped transform the trio into a national phenomenon in the late-1920s, it was Rudy Vallee who predicted Crosby's success as a solo singer.  In Baltimore in 1927, Vallee and his Yale Collegians were playing for a debutante ball in a college gymnasium when he heard The Rhythm Boys for the first time in person. "It was a crowded place," Vallee wrote, "and the trio, working only with a piano, was back against the wall of the gym, and nobody paid much attention to their performance.  Suddenly, however, one of them walked to the center of the floor and delivered a popular song of the day, 'Montmarte Rose.'   "When he finished, there was a deafening roar of applause that would have called for at least one or two encores.  Instead, he walked off the floor where we sat, his classic features expressionless, his patrician nose just a little bit up on the air.  You might have thought him deaf, so unaware he seemed of the sensation he had created.  But then, this insouciance has always characterized Bing Crosby."

For fifty years, Crosby was a show-business star who, although invariably reluctant to talk about himself, was nevertheless an acute analyst and critic of his singing.  "When I'm asked to describe what I do," he said in his autobiography Call Me Lucky, "I say, 'I'm not a singer; I'm a phraser.'  That means that I don't think of a song in terms of notes; I think of what it purports to say lyrically. "Playing some of the records I made in the 1930s," he wrote, "I notice that in many of them I was tired, my voice was bad, and had a lot of frogs in it.  The notes were generally in key, but sometimes I barely made them, and they sounded strained."  These qualities are evident in several of Crosby's early recordings, as in this Brunswick recording of "Sweet Sue" from 1931:

Throughout the early 1930s, Crosby alternated between singing ballads, which were a crooner's bread and butter, and popular tunes that lent themselves to scat-singing and an overall jazz interpretation.  One such song was "Sweet Georgia Brown," which Crosby recorded with Bennie Krueger's band in April 1932:

Six months earlier, at Brunswick Records, Crosby was paired with the Mills Brothers in an intricate arrangement of "Dinah," in which the Mills Brothers not only sang harmony but also imitated the bass violin and the muted cornet heard in the background:

While Crosby would have been satisfied with singing jazz arrangements of songs like "Dinah" and "Sweet Georgia Brown," he was persuaded by Jack Kapp, a recording director at Brunswick, to vary his repertoire by recording western songs and other folk music that Kapp began to suggest to him.  "I thought he was crazy," Crosby said years later, "but I just did what he told me."

When Kapp left Brunswick to form a new company of his own, Decca Records, Crosby not only followed him but also became one of the founding investors and major stockholders in the new Decca enterprise.  The resulting collaboration between Kapp and Crosby yielded most of the singer's top-selling recordings.  In their first session together, which took place in Los Angeles on August 8, 1934, Kapp had Crosby record  "Let Me Call You Sweetheart," a song that had been written in 1910 and had long since fallen out of fashion.  During the recording, which became a best-seller for Kapp's new Decca label, Crosby not only sang the then-quaint lyrics, but also displayed his mastery as a whistler on the recording:

In 1937, three years into his partnership with Jack Kapp, Crosby was offered a starring role in the Paramount film Waikiki Wedding, co-starring Shirley Ross and set in what was then the territory of Hawaii.  The film launched a new phase of Crosby's career:

Under Jack Kapp's direction, Crosby recorded not only "Blue Hawaii" for Decca, but also another hit song that was featured in the film.  His Decca recording of the song, "Sweet Leilani," remains an idiosyncratic recording in that the first half of the record features the singing not of Crosby but rather of Lani McIntire, the director of a steel-guitar band (Lani McIntire and His Hawaiians) which provided the accompaniment for Crosby on his series of Hawaiian discs for Decca.  McIntire, who had what might be charitably called an undistinguished singing voice, earned a measure of popular-music immortality when he recorded "Sweet Leilani" with Crosby at the Decca studios on February 23, 1937:

During the 1940s, Crosby's career took on new proportions as he became a major film star.  His 1944 performance as a Catholic priest in the film Going My Way yielded another best-selling Decca recording, "Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral":

In 1951, Crosby co-starred with Jane Wyman in the MGM film Here Comes the Groom, directed by Frank Capra, which yielded another best-selling recording for Crosby, Wyman, and Decca.  By 1951, Wyman (who had recently divorced her second husband, future U.S. president Ronald Reagan) was an Academy Award-winning movie star when she was paired with Crosby at MGM, but she had begun her career as a radio singer when she was just a teenager.  This is the scene from Here Comes the Groom in which she and Crosby sing "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening":

Crosby's next major film, The Country Girl, in which he co-starred with Grace Kelly and William Holden, earned him an Academy Award nomination (his third) for his moving portrayal of an alcoholic singer--a complete departure from his comedic performances in the highly successful "Road" films with Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour, and his priestly roles in Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary's, the 1945 film in which he reprised his role as a priest.  Although The Country Girl yielded no substantial hit songs for Crosby, his subsequent reunion with Grace Kelly in 1956 in the film High Society, which also co-starred Frank Sinatra and Celeste Holm, gave Crosby another best-selling record (this time for the Capitol label rather than Decca), and gave Grace Kelly her only musical performance on film in the duet "True Love":

High Society, which Crosby had co-produced, also gave him and Frank Sinatra (who idolized Crosby) their only occasion to sing together on film:

Even as he aged, Crosby retained the quality of voice and security of technique that enabled him to sing in his familiar, intimate  style to the very end of his life.  Only a few weeks before he died of a heart attack while traveling in Spain, Crosby persuaded his son, Harry Crosby, to sing a duet with him during a concert in Oslo, Norway.  The song, which the elder Crosby had recorded in his prime with Louis Armstrong, showed that even at the end of his life, Bing Crosby was still in full possession of his artistry:

At the time of his sudden death in Spain at age 69, Crosby was still a major marquee name in the music industry, and a frequent guest on national television programs well into the 1970s.  He had the longest career of any crooner of the 1930s, and in the ensuing years as his fame, popularity, and power grew exponentially, he outgrew the "crooner" label and essentially retired it as a relic of the Depression.

Neither the number of awards he won for his many top-selling recordings, nor his Academy Award as a film actor, seem to have given Bing Crosby an outsized ego.  Everyone who performed with him genuinely liked him, and admired his artistry and his high standards as a professional.  Behind the scenes, the corporation he founded, Bing Crosby Enterprises, funded experimental research for the development and improvement of sound-recording technology, including commercial magnetic-tape recorders and also video-recording technology.   In the music industry, Crosby became not only an inspiration for Frank Sinatra but also for Perry Como, Tony Martin, Vic Damone, Dean Martin, and Tony Bennett, among others.  "As with all the great singers," the critic and musicologist Henry Pleasants wrote in 1974, "when we hear Bing Crosby, we recognize the voice of an old and treasured friend."

James A. Drake 



Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Rediscovering James Melton By James A. Drake



I am both honored and pleased to be able to once again present Dr. James A. Drake as our guest author today.  A recently retired college president, James A. Drake is a distinguished author of seven books, four of which are biographies of great opera singers of the twentieth century.  Although not a musician (he earned a doctorate in philosophy and taught primarily in social-science disciplines before he became a university administrator), Dr. Drake earned the confidence of the legendary soprano Rosa Ponselle, with whom he collaborated on her autobiography for Doubleday and Company. With a foreword by Luciano Pavarotti, the Ponselle-Drake collaboration yielded excellent reviews and was named "Music Book of the Month" by the National Book Clubs of America in 1982.  The book was also promoted during a Metropolitan Opera broadcast in the 1982-83 season. By that time, Dr. Drake had been selected by Sara Tucker, widow of the celebrated tenor Richard Tucker, to write an authorized biography of the great singer, who had died in 1975 while at the peak of his career.  For the Tucker book, Luciano Pavarotti again contributed a foreword, and the biography was officially released at a special event hosted by maestro James Levine at Lincoln Center.  Once again, Dr. Drake's newest work received a "Music Book of the Month" award.

"He was so elegant,'" said Licia Albanese, the incomparable Italian lyric soprano, of the American tenor James Melton, who sang the role of Pinkerton to her Cio-Cio-San in Madame Butterfly at the Metropolitan Opera in January 1946.  "He was so tall and handsome in his white Navy uniform, and his voice was very, very beautiful," she said.   "We also made recordings of the duet from the first act of Butterfly, and our voices blended wonderfully." 

This is the conclusion of that famous duet, which was released by RCA Victor to coincide with the Melton-Albanese performances at the Metropolitan Opera:

Almost singularly among twentieth-century American tenors, James Melton (1904-1961) achieved stardom in every entertainment venue of his era:  on phonograph recordings, network radio programs, nationwide concert tours, Metropolitan Opera performances, Hollywood movie appearances, and even his own national television show.   

Four examples from the prime of his career will illustrate the smooth transitions he was able to make from one musical genre to another.  This is Melton’s recording of "Ah, fuyez, douce image" from Manon, under the baton of Metropolitan Opera conductor Wilfrid Pelletier: 

A second example is his spirited rendition of "The Donkey Serenade" from Friml's operetta, The Firefly, which Melton performed during one of his weekly radio broadcasts in 1943:

A third example is his RCA Red Seal recording of Thomas P. Westendorf's evergreen ballad, "I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen," which Melton imbued with a throbbing ruefulness that might have earned him a pat on the back from John McCormack, his vocal inspiration and boyhood idol:

Another example is Melton's recording of the theme song from Rodgers and Hammerstein's ground-breaking musical, Oklahoma!, which reflects his ease with the Broadway musicals of the postwar era:

In today’s parlance, James Melton would be labeled a "cross-over" singer.  But in the context of his times, when the gap between popular and classical vocal music was not as chasmic as it would later become, Melton was regarded as a versatile tenor with a voice equally suited to the operettas of Romberg and Friml, the sentimental Irish ballads of Chauncey Olcott and Ernest Ball, the Broadway show tunes of Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, and George Gershwin (with whom Melton toured in 1934), and the lyric-tenor roles in the operas of Massenet, Thomas, and Puccini.

In every venue in which he performed, Melton was engaged by the top networks, record companies, theatrical agents, and corporate sponsors of that time:  he recorded for RCA Victor's prestigious Red Seal label; he was represented by Evans & Salter, the most influential theatrical agency of that era; he sang frequently on such highly-rated radio programs as The Firestone Hour and The Bell Telephone Hour, among others; he had his own weekly radio show, sponsored by Texaco (the long-time sponsor of the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts); he sang eighty-three performances as a leading tenor at the Metropolitan; he appeared in four movies including the MGM Technicolor extravaganza, Ziegfeld Follies; and in the 1950s he hosted his own weekly television program, sponsored by the Ford Motor Company.

Melton's television show, "Ford Festival," reflected the tenor's lifelong passion for automobiles, especially antique autos, which he collected, restored, and exhibited--so much so that like Jay Leno today, Melton became known almost as much as for his antique-auto collection (he amassed more than 100 vintage cars) as he was for his musical career.

Yet despite the magnitude of his celebrity and the popularity he enjoyed throughout his career--and unlike such contemporaries as Richard Crooks and Jan Peerce on the opera stage, or later, Mario Lanza in movies and on recordings--James Melton is scarcely remembered today.  The reasons for this can be traced not only to changing musical trends, especially during the 1950s, but also to Melton himself.  "He became his own worst enemy," said Gustave Haenschen, a radio and recording executive who helped shape Melton's early career and who remained one of his close friends.

"Artistically," Haenschen went on to say, "he was a gifted singer with a very distinctive tenor voice.  As a person, he was very outgoing, a real charmer, and a very generous man.  But everything came too easily for Jim, and he didn't have the patience or the self-discipline to handle it.  Alcohol was his downfall.  He ended up destroying everything he had worked for, and in the process he destroyed himself."  The downward spiral of James Melton's later career, which was well known in theatrical circles but was largely kept from the public, has been chronicled recently in a candid but respectful personal memoir, James Melton:  The Tenor of his Times, written by his daughter, Margo Melton Nutt, whom Melton and wife adopted in 1946.  "For the first half of his career," she writes, "my father's talent, charm, and luck carried him ever higher.  Later, as the music business changed and his career was on the wane, in his desperation he created enemies instead of opportunities."

Although the sordid circumstances of Melton's death (in April 1961, at age 57, from pneumonia and malnutrition caused by chronic alcohol abuse) can only be described as pitiful, his rise to fame had been extraordinarily rapid.  Born in rural Georgia, Melton spent his formative years in a small settlement near Ocala, Florida.  The son of a sawmill owner, and one of seven children, he became known locally for his mechanical aptitude (he repaired tractors and other farm equipment while also keeping his father's sawmill running), his musical interests (he sang in his school choir and later taught himself to play the saxophone), and especially his athletic prowess:  at 6' 3" and 180 lbs., and fiercely competitive by nature, he was a formidable high-school football player.  Melton was only sixteen when he graduated from high school.  He enrolled at the University of Florida a few months later, and was accepted into the ROTC band as a saxophonist.  Off-campus, he played in small bands for fraternity and sorority dances and other paying engagements.  Near the end of his freshman year, he transferred to the University of Georgia, and then to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, where the market for his saxophone-playing was more lucrative. 
At seventeen, Melton had a chance encounter with the popular songwriter Chauncey Olcott, who overheard Melton vocalizing and asked him to sing some of his songs.  Suitably impressed, Olcott recommended Melton to Gaetano de Luca, a regional voice teacher with impressive testaments from successful singers who had studied with him.  (Later, Melton would study in Italy with Enrico Rosati, the teacher of Beniamino Gigli and Giacomo Lauri-Volpi.) By age twenty-four, Melton had formulated a detailed career plan that ultimately came to fruition.  "I plan to continue on radio and recordings," he wrote to his fiancée, "[while] in the meantime studying for bigger and better things which are sure to come.  After another year, or two, or three, I shall have enough money to begin a different phase of singing, and with the perfection of my voice ... I will have no trouble at all being engaged by the Metropolitan Opera."

"From there to the concert stage," he assured his fiancee, "for a tenor of my own type, which is the rarest voice on earth, is but a step.  I should make a mark in the world of music of which everyone concerned will be proud."

After intensive study with Gaetano de Luca, Melton relocated to New York City, where he secured an audition with theater magnates J. J. and Lee Shubert at the Winter Garden theater.  The Shuberts, who had launched Al Jolson's phenomenal career, offered the young Melton a contract, but he declined it because some of its clauses hinted at long-term obligations.  Next, he sought an audition with Samuel L. Rothafel, whose 6,200-seat movie palace, the Roxy Theater, featured "live" entertainment before each motion picture was screened.  Rothafel finally consented to meet with Melton after the brazen young tenor sang almost nonstop, in full voice, in the lobby of the Rothafel's private office.  Hearing the promise in Melton's singing, and probably being impressed by the young man's persistence, Rothafel offered him a contract for $1,000 per week--a substantial sum for a beginner on Broadway at the time. 

Soon afterward, Broadway's reigning impresario, Florenz Ziegfeld, offered Melton a role in the upcoming edition of the Ziegfeld Follies.  But Rothafel urged Melton to decline Ziegfeld's offer by pointing out that the annual Follies extravaganzas had made stars of Nora Bayes, Fanny Brice, Ina Claire, and Marilyn Miller, among others, but had only produced one noteworthy career for a tenor--namely, John Steel, who had introduced Irving Berlin's "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody" in the Follies of 1919. Acting upon Samuel Rothafel's advice, Melton tactfully declined the Follies contract.  Then he received a completely unanticipated offer from The Revelers, an innovative male quartet whose intricate, up-tempo arrangements (mostly by pianist-conductor Frank Black, the musical and business partner of Gustave Haenschen) had made the quartet extraordinarily popular on radio and recordings.  Melton became the lead tenor of the quartet when Franklyn Baur, who had joined the group in 1924, left The Revelers to pursue a career in opera (which, unfortunately for Baur, never materialized).  In March 1927, shortly before he left the group, Baur and The Revelers were featured in a Warner Brothers Vitaphone film:

Melton, whose voice was slightly larger and more distinctive in timbre than Franklyn Baur's, not only enhanced the popularity of The Revelers, but also earned himself an increasing number of  opportunities to sing solos during the quartet's appearances.  In turn, these solo performances led to a recording contract for the Columbia Company's then-new Viva-Tonal label, for which the young Melton made the majority of his early recordings.  This Viva-Tonal disc dates from his first recording session for Columbia in 1927:

These Columbia Viva-Tonal recordings, along with other discs that Melton made for Brunswick and other labels in the late 1920s, paved the way to his long and lucrative career on network radio.  From there, as Melton had predicted to his then-fiancée (his wife, by this time), the Metropolitan Opera came within his reach.

During the early years of his career, Melton, like his contemporary Richard Crooks, had been compared to the legendary John McCormack, who was still actively concertizing, making recordings, and appearing on radio programs during the 1930s.  Crooks had managed to escape the comparison after his highly acclaimed Metropolitan Opera debut in 1933 ("Crooks Triumphs in Opera Debut, Endless Curtain Calls" was the headline of the New York Times review the next day), but Melton never eluded the long shadow that McCormack cast throughout his forty-year career.  Initially, at least, Melton seemed to relish the comparison, and alternately tried to compete with McCormack on radio while also vying for his personal attention and approval--a strategy doomed from the start, according to Milton Cross, radio's "Voice of the Metropolitan Opera" for four decades. 

"I got to know John McCormack rather well from the radio programs I did with him," Cross said in a 1974 oral-history interview.  "He was always cordial but very formal, rather aloof, and 'all business,' as they say--not the genial Irishman that the public imaged him to be.  Although he was the most famous tenor of his time except Caruso, McCormack was always suspicious of any upcoming singers who were singing what he regarded as 'his' songs.  I can remember a number of times at rehearsals, when he would take me aside and quiz me about other singers who were on the radio.  "'Now tell me, Mr. Cross,' he once said to me, 'who is this Bing Crosby, and what do you know of him?'  I answered that I knew Bing personally, and that he was a fine fellow.  'And what is his voice?,' McCormack wanted to know.  'Well, he's a light baritone,' I said, 'and he's a crooner like your friend Mr. [Rudy] Vallee.'  I knew that McCormack liked Rudy Vallee because Rudy had him on his radio show and treated him like a king--and Rudy, of course, never sang any songs that were associated with John McCormack.

“'This boy Crosby is doing my songs on his program,' McCormack said to to me very sternly.  'Last week he sang my 'Adeste Fidelis,' and I don't think I like that very much!'  I tried to remind him that this was the holiday season, but that didn't seem to make any difference to McCormack.  After that conversation, I got in touch with Bing and told him about it--and then Bing invited McCormack to be on his radio program, and made a big fuss over him.  From then on, Bing and McCormack became good friends. 

"Around that same time, McCormack took me aside again and said, almost in the same words, 'Now tell me, Mr. Cross, who is this James Melton, and what do you know of him?'  I said that I didn't know Melton very well, not like I knew Bing, but that [Melton] was a light tenor who had been with The Revelers, and was now a soloist on the radio.  "'Are you aware,' McCormack said brusquely, 'that this boy Melton had the nerve to sing my 'Macushla' on the radio this week?  Does that boy think he can just steal my music and take money from my own pockets?  I'll not allow it!'" 

To readers who may be unfamiliar with John McCormack and the mesmerizing effect he had upon audiences, this excerpt from the film Song o' My Heart, in which McCormack starred in 1930, captures his unique voice and artistry--especially his ability to sustain long, floating high tones--in the ballad "I Hear You Calling Me," which McCormack rightly claimed as "his" song:

At the time McCormack appeared in Song o' My Heart, his career in the U.S. had already spanned two decades, and his enormously popular recordings were staples in most American homes.   His 1911 Victor Red Seal disc of "Macushla," the ballad which he claimed Melton "stole" from him, remains one of the iconic recordings of the pre-World War One era:

The alleged thievery of "Macushla" by the young Melton became a national news item when a New York City newspaper published a story about it.   "Most listeners didn't know it, but there was quite a battle on the air recently," the news story claimed.  "The contestants, one in New York and the other in the Hollywood Bowl, were James Melton, top tenor of The Revelers, and John McCormack ... and we mean the John McCormack."

"It was bloodless but interesting.  Melton knew he had to precede McCormack on the air by an hour.  He knew, too, that his program would attract an audience almost as large as McCormack's.  Melton went on the air and stepped out of the quartet to do a solo.  He selected the song McCormack made famous, 'Macushla,' and did a beautiful job.  When the great Irish singer's broadcast came along later, 'Macushla" was conspicuous by its absence from his program."

Melton, who was embarrassed by the news story but was still hoping to gain McCormack's approval, invited the great tenor to a special dinner in his honor at Melton's Manhattan home.  Preparing for the event, Melton's wife made sure that every detail accorded with McCormack's tastes--not only the food, champagne, dessert, and cognac, but even the brand of cigars that McCormack favored.  Melton, intending to sing for McCormack after the sumptuous meal, invited a piano accompanist to the dinner.  McCormack, no doubt sizing up the situation as the evening progressed, was genial and engaging throughout the dinner--but as he was puffing on an after-dinner cigar, he sauntered to Melton's piano, sat down, and sang a half-dozen of his signature ballads to his own accompaniment.  Immediately afterward, he rose from the keyboard, thanked Melton and his wife for a delightful evening--and abruptly left. 

However hurtful the dismissiveness of McCormack may have been to Melton at the time, the fact remained that he had already been typecast as an "Irish tenor" and a potential heir to the McCormack legacy.  What Melton lacked, however, was not only the refinement of technique but also the interpretative nuance and subtlety of John McCormack.  By comparison, these qualities are entirely absent in Melton's own recording of "I Hear You Calling Me," which he made for RCA in 1949:

For all his well-earned acclaim as a popular-music radio and recording artist, it is Melton's operatic career, and more specifically his eight seasons with the Metropolitan Opera Company, that beckon our attention here.  In 1940, Lawrence Evans, Melton's theatrical agent, sent a letter to Edward Johnson, the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera.  "I believe [Melton's] repertoire is known to you," Evans wrote, "but for the sake of clarity I list it herewith:  Manon, Mignon, Lucia, Butterly, Traviata, Lakme (in preparation), Martha (in English).... As you know, Mr. Melton is singing these leading roles in other cities opposite artists from the Metropolitan, and it would be shame if he did not have the same chance here."

Through the intercession of a number of well-established artists who were his personal friends, Melton was introduced to Fausto Cleva, then an assistant conductor and choral director with the Metropolitan Opera.  Melton was also introduced to Angelo Canarutto, who worked as a coach for the Chicago Opera and the Metropolitan.  In turn, Canarutto prepared Melton in two roles, Pinkerton and Alfredo, for an eventual debut with a regional opera company.  That debut took place with the Cincinnati Summer Opera Company in July 1938, with Melton singing the role of Lieutenant B. F. Pinkerton in Madame Butterfly.  The debut was an unqualified success.

"Melton Captures Opera Lovers' Hearts," said the New York Times  when, in the summer of 1939, he returned to Cincinnati to sing Traviata and Mignon.   Next, in the autumn of 1939, amid radio appearances and recording sessions, he appeared as a guest artist with the National Opera Company in New York City, the Chicago City Opera, and the Philadelphia La Scala Opera. 

On December 7, 1942, one year to the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Melton made his Metropolitan Opera debut.  The headline of the New York Times review proclaimed, "Melton a Success in His Opera Debut / The Georgia-Born Lyric Tenor Scores as Tamino at Metropolitan." "James Melton's name and voice," wroteTimes critic Howard Taubman, "have been known to the American public for a good many years as a result of his work in radio, concerts, records and the movies.  If that public needs any further endorsement of his attainments, Mr. Melton proved it when he made his debut in the role of Tamino in The Magic Flute and proved beyond question that he belongs in the company.  "The only question was:  Why had it taken the company so long to add this gifted American tenor to its roster?  Mr. Melton acted and sang with the poise that a singer gains only from years of appearing in public ...  Mr. Melton's is a true lyric tenor voice.  It is not like some other lyric tenors that are too frail for the vast spaces of the Opera House; it is sturdy enough to be heard in the uppermost tier of the Metropolitan.  Mr. Melton sang intelligently, and with sensitive regard for the Mozart style.  He brought dignity and elegance to the part of Tamino.  He should grace other roles."

Fortunately, Melton recorded a number of French and Italian arias for RCA Victor during his eight-year tenure with the Metropolitan.  Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, several of the Met's Saturday matinee broadcasts in which Melton sang were recorded, either partially or in their entirety, and excerpts from these historic performances are now available online for our scrutiny. 

As our departure point, we will begin with the duet that closes Act One of Donizetti's Lucia ("Sulla tomba ... Verranno a te sull' aure"), which Melton sang with Lily Pons in the title role during a Metropolitan broadcast on January 8, 1944:

Until the final note of the duet--when Pons momentarily sagged below pitch, hastily corrected it, and then held the climactic note considerably longer than Melton--the pairing of the young, tall American tenor and the petite, world-renowned French coloratura in an opera that Pons essentially owned at the Met, was a success with the audience as well as the critics.

From that same 1944 broadcast, this is Melton's performance of "Tombe degli avi miei" and "Fra poco a me ricovero":

By contrast, another of Melton's off-the-air performances, this one from his Texaco radio program in 1946, betrays either a lapse of judgment or an excess of hubris on his part as he attempts to sing "Celeste Aida," which he had performed in the Warner Brothers film Stars Over Broadway:

Although Melton had written confidently to his wife that "'Celeste Aida' will establish the legitimacy of my singing," his performance instead discloses some of his vocal, linguistic, and dramatic limitations.  His singing of the aria, which is marred by persistent intonation problems and barely intelligible Italian pronunciation, contains no semblance of the aria's dramatic requirements, and may be charitably labeled as an unidiomatic performance.   

In a repertoire more congenial to the range and size of his voice, however, Melton could come closer to the requirements of a role.  This is his RCA Red Seal recording of Pinkerton's aria, "Addio fiorito asil":

By contrast, as Melton's studio performance of the "Siciliana" from Cavalleria rusticana attests, he lacked the vocal resources for the role of Turiddu, although he recorded the aria with the RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra under Wilfrid Pelletier's direction:

The familiar "M'appari" from Flotow's Martha was an attempt by Melton to invite favorable comparisons to the other Depression-era tenors who, after Caruso, had appropriated the aria on recordings, especially Beniamino Gigli, Tito Schipa, and Giovanni Martinelli.  In his radio performance of the aria, Melton acquitted himself well enough to earn a favorable review from the critics:

At the Metropolitan Opera, Melton's limited foothold in the lyric repertoire, which had seemed initially secure after his successful debut, was loosened by a sequence of events over which he had no personal control.   First, and most devastatingly, was the sudden death of Angelo Canarutto, who had given Melton the preparation and confidence he needed when he undertook the transition from popular music to Italian and French opera.  (Almost simultaneously, Canarutto had done the same for Richard Tucker, who was then a full-time cantor in Brooklyn.)  On August 29, 1944, as he was preparing to board a cruise ship in Portland, Oregon, Canarutto suffered a fatal aneurysm.

Next came the Metropolitan Opera debuts of two younger tenors, one an American and the other Italian, who would soon displace Melton in the lyric repertoire.  The first of the two, Richard Tucker, made a highly acclaimed debut as Enzo in La Gioconda on January 25, 1945.  In Tucker, the critic Irving Kolodin later wrote, "the Metropolitan acquired its most beautiful tenor voice since Gigli's." 

Three seasons later, in 1948, another newcomer, Giuseppe Di Stefano, made his debut as the Duke in Rigoletto.   "His musical merits have mostly to do with style," said Virgil Thomson in his  Herald-Tribune review.  "He is interesting on a stage in a way not wholly explicable by the mere fact that he is young and, as tenors go, personable.  He can carry a show now musically and personally... He has charm and theatrical sense, as well as musical instinct.  Given technical perfection, he could be a fine artist."

During his debut season, Di Stefano earned particular acclaim for his Des Grieux in Manon, a role which Melton had first sung at the Met in January 1948, with Eleanor Steber in the title role.   At the time, both Melton and Steber received tepid reviews from the major critics ("The result ... was favorable," said Thomson, "from the simple fact that it was not in any sense a failure"), whereas Di Stefano, when he assumed the role two months later, "looked the part of the 'handsome young aristocrat' of Abbé Prevost's imagination and acted the role ably, investing his impersonation with refinement and fervor."

A third factor in Melton's declining popularity (and, again, one over which he had no control) was the American public's changing taste in popular music after World War Two.  The postwar years brought to the fore (or, in some instances, reinforced) the radio and recording careers of such immensely popular young singers as Frank Sinatra, Tony Martin, Perry Como, Frankie Laine, and Tony Bennett.  Melton came to know these "new" singers and numbered them among his personal friends.  Melton, in fact, had invited Sinatra to perform on his Texaco radio program:

While he could hold his own in a mock opera duet with the young Sinatra in the 1940s, Melton was at a loss to skyrocketing popularity of Mario Lanza during the 1950s:  

Melton, adrift in the wake of Lanza's phenomenal popularity and doing his best to keep his loyal but diminishing fan base, returned to the music of Broadway for his subsequent recordings.  The resulting discs were not recorded by mainstream companies, however, but by smaller ones to which Melton turned when RCA  gave him little or nothing to record.  These smaller labels gave Melton some of his last commercially-viable recordings.  This is his 1952 rendition of "Beyond the Sea," which had been popularized in Europe as "La mer" by Charles Trenet, the French cabaret singer.  Unlike the latter's recording (which eventually found its way into the soundtrack of Steve Martin's 1991 film, L.A. Story), Melton's recorded version lacks any discernible individuality:

One of Melton's last commercial recordings, which he made for the low-budget Mayfair label in 1958, confirms that even at the dusk of his career (and near the end of his life, unfortunately), his voice had still retained much of its earlier color:

In sum, and to raise the all-important question, what are we to make of the operatic career of James Melton?  Approximately four years after he had been quietly dropped from the Metropolitan roster during the transition in management from Edward Johnson to Rudolf Bing (who replied, when I asked him about Melton during an interview, "I don't recall him but I believe he was one of Mr. Johnson's tenors"), Irving Kolodin expressed his opinion in The Story of the Metropolitan Opera 1883-1950, published in 1953.

 "Considering James Melton's beginnings in radio as a member of the vocal ensemble called The Revelers," Kolodin wrote, "the tenacity of purpose that brought him to a Metropolitan debut as Tamino in The Magic Flute must be admired, if not too much in the performance itself.  He later sang a small-scaled Alfredo in La Traviata and a rather lame Ottavio in Don Giovanni with a voice of agreeable quality but gravely limited size.  On all occasions, the breezy self-assurance that caused [Sir Thomas] Beecham to allude to him, when he could not recall his name, as 'the gentleman jockey' tended to make his characterizations a little bumptious."

To another well-respected critic, however, Kolodin's assessment seemed "much too harsh" in retrospect.  Max de Schauensee, the Philadelphia music critic who heard Melton's operatic career in its entirety, disagreed with Kolodin's acidic judgment.  "But," De Schaunsee added, "James Melton will always be difficult to pinpoint as an opera singer.  He surely was one, nevertheless, and he sang leading tenor roles at the Metropolitan Opera for eight years.  To borrow a line from the Gershwins, who could ask for anything more?"

James A. Drake