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