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 




JD Hobbes said...

Thank you, Sir Edmund, and Dr. Drake for a nostalgic article that I will read many times. It recalls the small Vitaphone collection that I have along with memories of my grandparents' old RCA Victor gramophone. I chuckled when Dr. Drake mentioned strong voices and clear pronunciation, because that seems to be a thing of the past with so many singers today. I do remember hearing Crosby downplay his talents in an interview once when he said he could "carry a tune." Times were much different; America was largely rural; people liked simple, straightforward singing; and Crosby was good at singing and acting. Of course, the movies of those days (Crosby and Hope) were hopelessly corny by today's standards, but they fit the era. Crosby's death was very hard on Hope--they were buddies. Anyhow, thanks again for a fine article and one that many people will enjoy.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much indeed, Mr. Hobbes. As you always do, you hit the nail right smack on the head. Times were indeed much different. Simple, straightforward singing was in vogue, and it is quite remarkable to me how much sentiment remains; how much yearning for those times and the art of those times. Thanks so much!

Anonymous said...

I really like this blog a lot! I knew some of the more famous singers, like Bing Crosby and even Gene Austin, but Henry Burr and Harry Macdonough, to take two examples, were discoveries. They were very good, although they sound to me more like they belong to the end of the 19th century than to the 30's. Most were really good. The only one I didn't care for was Whispering Jack Smith. Sounds to me like he had no voice to speak of and he was "whispering" because he couldn't sing! But the others were great. Thanks for this most unusual blog.

Leonard Masters

Edmund St. Austell said...

Ha, ha! Love the whispering Jack comment:-) I'm sure he had his fans, but I know what you mean. Maybe he took "crooning" one step beyond! Thanks for the comment, and welcome to Great Opera Sings. Drop by any time; you're always welcome!

Unknown said...

Most references sources, whether printed publications or online sources such as Wikipedia, maintain that Smith's "whispering" voice was the result of a poison-gas attack during his Army service in World War One. Although the only first-hand account of the incident seems to be Smith's own, and barring any documentation to the contrary, there is no particular reason to doubt the story. Additionally, Smith's half-talking, half-singing style was not uncommon among vaudeville singers, and can be heard in many of the recordings of Al Jolson, Ted Lewis, and the one published recording of George M. Cohan, Broadway's first 20th century superstar. There's no question, however, that Whispering Jack Smith as a singer is a taste not easily acquired. In a 1981 article about changes in singing styles, The New York Times critic John Wilson laid blame on the invention of the microphone, which "enabled a Whispering Jack Smith to make a rhythmic mumble pass for singing."

Anonymous said...

This really is well done! I can't help but think about how easy it is to listen to all these songs. They just fly by! I'm reminded of what Mr. Hobes said about the taste for simple straightforward singing back then. I think he's right. Talk about easy listening! I don't know if it's the music, the times or the singers, but it seems to be true.

P. Rempel

Edmund St. Austell said...

I think it's the times as much as anything. The artists always seem to arise when there is a clear taste and demand. It is sometimes the case that a particularly great artist can create a genre, but usually the genre comes first. Bing Crosby might be an exception to that rule, however, because he pretty much wiped out the crooning tenors and set a crooning baritone style that survived. I don't know if we will ever see a crooning tenor again. If not, Crosby may well be the cause.

JD Hobbes said...

As I listen again to these selections, I think of the general decency of the arts at the beginning of the last century up through the Vietnam war. It seems idyllic in one way, but I realize that life at that time was also difficult with the Depression, Prohibition, WW II and the mobs/gangsters of the 1930's. As Americans moved from the farms to the cities, it is easy to forget that Hollywood (and the arts in general) tried to impose some standards, such as the Motion Picture Production Code (1930-68) in an effort to fend of tough legislation from Congress. The Vietnam War and various political assassinations of the 1960's and '70's marked the end of innocence for America, and since then nothing has been quite the same. Some persons would also argue that the battles over school busing, abortion, and even Vatican II had severe impacts on American Arts, Culture, self-discipline, and moral codes. But that is a debate for other places.

Edmund St. Austell said...

That is a very interesting comment, Mr. Hobbes. When I first read it, I though "well, yes, interesting, but as you say, probably a debate for another place and time," but you know, the more I think about it, the more interested I become. You are on to something very profound here, and I have been thinking about how many times, on my Youtube channel, I hear similar comments when I put up certain kinds of songs. I'm running around 4 and 1/2 million visits on my channel now, and getting a pretty good idea of the sentiment that's out there. One of the most popular things I have put up, for example, is the old Disney intro, "When you wish upon a star,” with Cliff Edwards singing his high falsetto Jiminy Cricket. The number of people who just love that sentimental song is huge. Another very popular bit of singing of that kind is Adriana Caselotti as Snow White. Same reaction. The comments are always the same—“I wish this kind of music and singing would come back” And that instantly leads me to the present day, and Jackie Evancho. The most popular blog I ever did on Great Opera Singers was little Jackie, not long ago. I got 6,000 readers in the first day…that’s an all time record for me. Why? It’s the same thing. A tremendous yearning out there, especially among people “of a certain age,” as the French say. I suppose that sentimental music might be viewed as an antidote to troubled times. Certainly, the last century was a nightmare of war and depression, almost from the get-go, which is to say WWI, a horror story that turned the 20th century on its head, something it never really recovered from. But of course, there is a reaction to sentimentality too. When it becomes excessive, people-some people—want a grittier, more “sophisticated” art. Just look at the difference in Dr. Drake’s selections as we progress from Henry Burr, Harry Macdonough, Gene Austin, Ozzie Nelson, and Rudy Vallee up through the 30’s and into the 40’s, until we are post-war, and Frank Sinatra has entered the picture. From late 19th century sentimentality to a more nearly modern “cool” in Sinatra. We’re also into the Hollywood “film noir” era. A major difference in sensibilities. Which brings me to yesterday. I have been posting Jackie Evancho songs, and yesterday I hit my first piece of hate mail. A real crazy. I had to take out the comment section. I knew this was going to happen eventually. Jackie’s audience is largely elderly. You can be sure that the people who want to hear Justin Bieber are not going to be interested in Jackie. (She’s also too young, too beautiful, too talented, too wealthy…that brings out the haters too!) But I’m rambling. Sorry…but you have hit a sensitive nerve, something I see a lot of, and I too wonder what the full implications of it are. It’s bound to be more subtle and complex than I understand it to be! Is that the way you see it?

JD Hobbes said...

No one knows what the future holds, of course. You say "subtle and complex." I would agree about "complex" but not "subtle." I see the world growing more angry and frustrated as population explodes, resources dwindle, and societies fragment. That is reflected in modern music which, to my way of thinking, is the shallow expression of pain and confusion. The music we knew as classical lingers but does not prosper. Popular musicians search for gimmicks that reap financial riches. And what is done in the name of creativity and lasting values? Sadly, I can't think of anything. In the clutter of TV, computers and gadgets, the glory and odium of the internet, fast-food restaurants, long-distance commuting for jobs, and the daily battle of politics, I think people have lost their sense of balance. They search for meaning in 30-second sound bytes. They are cut off from the reality of nature that supports them. I am reminded of Yeats' statement that the "centre cannot hold," Orwell's "1984," and perhaps worst, "Clockwork Orange." Walt Disney, who was a genius in my estimation, tried to envision and create the model for a world that could be happy and cooperative. But now even artists such as Meryl Streep are "dissing" Disney, the man, and missing the point about what he sought. In short, American attitudes have become sour (cf. Mother Teresa's statements about America's being "poor in spirit.") What are things are like abroad? What about Russia? How much does the government in Russia support the arts (ballet in particular)? What is the attitude there? Perhaps your friend can weigh in on this. I'd like to know if I am off base or if anyone agrees?

Edmund St. Austell said...

Ouch! I have no answer. I can't say you're wrong, I can only escape into my little part of cyberworld, and post and discuss the glories of times past and hope that at least a few young people out there realize that there was a time when things were different, and think to themselves what a lot of their elders so, which is "I wish music was still like that. I'm cultivating my garden:-) Thanks, Mr. Hobbes, for some really thought provoking ideas on this whole business of sentimental music of the past!

Unknown said...

Interestingly, one of the most controversial performers of the Vietnam era, Joan Baez, when asked in a 1997 BBC television interview about the singers who influenced her the most, replied (in this order) Marian Anderson, Kathleen Ferrier, and Jussi Bjoerling. Who would have thought ...?

Anonymous said...

To JD Hobbes:

Famous Russian artists still get their medals and awards from the government, but in general the level of arts (especially of painting, pop-music, film) is low. We still have brilliant classic musicians, ballet dancers, opera singers, but many of them prefer to live abroad. The worst situation is with education.
Russian government turns out to be the main enemy of artistic education now. There was a Soviet system of free art / music schools for talented children . Now this system is falling apart as ‘having no prospects’ and unprofitable . They state that everything must be ‘effective’, besides, Russia joined The World Trade Organization, which means that our education has to be adjusted in accordance with European standards . For some reason our officials choose the lowest standards and gradually destroy the Soviet educational system. Ballet is in a better position, the two main ballet schools in Moscow and St. Petersburg managed to defend their right to teach their own classic curriculum. I know that the ballet star Nikolai Tziskaridze is not too popular in the West due to recent scandals in the Bolshoi, but he is the most famous and influential defender of the classic ballet system. He even spoke in the State Duma on ballet education, and he continues his public work as a member of Council of Culture and Art.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you so much, Natalie, for responding to Mr. Hobbes question. Your answer is really interesting, and very illuminating. There was a lot about the old Soviet system that was admirable, especially where the arts were concerned, don't you think? Thanks again, dear friend.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thanks, Jim, for that information on Joan Baez! Who would have thought, indeed? This gets more interesting all the time!

Anonymous said...

For Mr. Hobbes. As one of those "people of a certain age" that Edmund spoke of, I'm afraid I fall into that category. I remember a lot of the people Dr. Drake talks about, and I love little Jackie Evancho that Edmund talks about, and I can tell you that I sure do miss a lot about the sentimental music of the old days, and the reason, Mr. Hobbes, is largely what you talk about. An awful lot has been lost, and I wish it would come back too. So called "popular culture" which is American, essentially, is taking over the world. It's awful!


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thanks for the comment Martha. I'm so glad you wrote in; I was hoping you would. Martha, I hear what you have just said, every SINGLE DAY on my Channel. Every day. A lot of people feel that way!

Thanks again.

Darren Seacliffe said...

I've not listened to any of the videos here but I've read through the comments. Of late, the discussion in the comments seems to have veered into an interesting new direction Here are my 2 cents for the discussion, if anybody's willing to accept them:

Edmund's videos on the Disney songs are really popular. Millions of visitors have watched them but I wonder how old are they. Edmund, I think most of them are 40 and above, aren't they? I don't know about the crowd in their 30s now but as a feller in the 20s range, I doubt if there are many people my age or younger who will be watching such videos.

Even when my brother was 14 (he's now 21), his classmates were already sniggering at him for listening to soundtracks from the classic Disney movies. The irony was his classmates and him grew up on the same Disney and Hanna-Barbara cartoons. The last few classic Disney movies like Toy Story, Tarzan etc. were all released when we were still in grade school. Something similar happened to another friend who was playing Disney songs in the office. Me and him were both clerks serving out our respective stints of compulsory military service.

I think there are 2 ways of looking at the comments: For the older generation (my parents' and Edmund's), the yearning for sentimental songs might be due to nostalgia. To Edmund's, perhaps this reminds them of the times when things were simpler although life was harder. To my parents' (the generation in their 40s and 50s now), this reminds them of their childhood, when they had less to worry about. For my generation and the ones after, the reason why we express such views isn't exactly because of nostalgia. It's more because we're dismayed at the direction popular culture is heading. We're not happy with the music that's popular today or what's showing in the TV these days so we turn to the music of the past and or the TV shows of yesteryear that seem much better in comparison. I'm one of the more extreme cases since I went into opera and later operetta as a result of this.

I admit I know little about the popular culture today since from a young age, I shunned anything associated with my peers. We had our differences. It's true that there's some popular music with an undertone of anger and frustration but this isn't the type of music in vogue, I think. What's in vogue is Bieber's music, mind-numbing music that's shamelessly superficial. It only goes to show how much downhill popular taste has been heading in recent years.

I'll answer Mr Hobbes' comment in another comment.

Edmund St. Austell said...

I'll tell you something, my friend. They're nearer 60 and above. I'm almost 75 years old. You start talking 1930's, and you're reaching back a long, long time-) No, I have no illusions. My audience runs heavily to 60's and 70's.

DanPloy said...

What fantastic comments.

Just my own minor opinion; the counter-culture of the 1960s did bring about one very significant change across all of the arts - it removed the judgement of quality. The societal changes that challenged authority also brought down perceived elitism - everything was now art from Greenberg's kitsch to progressive rock.
And now we are reaping the seeds that were sown where we unable to make judgment on quality of singing anymore and we are subjected to reality TV programs where the 'singer' sounds like a cat being thrown against a wall by its testicles.
Popular singers, to coin the phrase, have retired or died. Al Martino, Vic Damone, Peggy Lee, Andy Williams, Johnny Mathis... we shall not see their like again.
And this is not because we do not produce those singers, it is because we are now unable (or allowed) to judge their quality and elevate them from the dross.
All singers must be good because they are on TV - all art must be good because it is that gallery.

I am 56 by the way.

Darren Seacliffe said...

This is my answer to Mr. Hobbes' comments.

'' I see the world growing more angry and frustrated..That is reflected in modern music which, to my way of thinking, is the shallow expression of pain and confusion.''

There are popular musicians now who are trying to express their anger and frustration with the world in a creative medium which not all of us would accept due to our old-fashioned sensibilities. We might think it shallow but we have to accept that a changing world calls for different vehicles of expression. It also could be that people aren't as capable of expressing themselves as their predecessors were because of their lack of exposure to the arts. After all, it's the arts that enables us to understand the deeper meaning behind the things around us. If you've studied literature or read the great classics when you were young, try and think of the difference this has made in your life. Not everyone's as fortunate. This might explain why the creative works of these people may appear shallow.

However, on the other extreme, there are some who are blindly imitating the popular singers of the past without trying to understand the deeper meanings behind their work. And you've an even more ignorant audience that's mindlessly accepting all that.

''Popular musicians search for gimmicks that reap financial riches. And what is done in the name of creativity and lasting values?''

Alas, nowadays, nothing is built to last. It's the way things are now. Not just for the arts, but even for the things we use as well. As for the gimmicks. Don't you think a more discerning audience would not fall for such gimmicks? A friend of mine was saying that perhaps it's because we're used to getting things fast. People aren't willing to wait to get satisfaction anymore. So long as they get what they want here and now, it doesn't matter to them what happens after that.

I suppose this is why classical music isn't going to be popular any more. Why wait a minute for a tune in a symphony when you can get it within milliseconds in some Miley Cyrus or Justin Bieber song? So long as the rest of the songs doesn't get much worse and they don't last too long, their fans wouldn't mind listening to them even if the rest of us don't think much of every part of them.

The last thing I'd like to say to Mr Hobbes is this: I understand what he means about Streep's comments but he seems to have misinterpreted the context. Streep was referring to Disney's behavior towards the author of Mary Poppins. He should watch Saving Ms. Banks. Even if Disney was a flawed man like all great people are, it doesn't erase his contributions. People may not notice it but Disney's one of the few movie companies from the good old days that is still making movies. Its theme parks continue to attract families today. A better example would be Sesame Street, which I grew up watching. It's sickening to see how Cookie Monster, Bert and Ernie are labelled these days. How did we complicate things these two decades? Sometimes I wonder if it's the fact that kids don't have much of a childhood, so when they grow up, they can say such inane things.

Mr Hobbes, I think the world today fits that in Brave New World more than 1984 and Clockwork Orange. It's amazing how Huxley could have made such predictions a hundred years ago. Perhaps somebody ought to study his work now. He may very well be the Mahler of literature.

Darren Seacliffe said...

To Edmund: I think that's the best thing to do, to preserve the music from the good old days so that people will be able to rediscover them in future just like how people rediscovered the Greek and Roman classics in the Renaissance. Even I may not live to see that day but that's all we can do, given the way things are heading. Despite the fact popular taste has been reaching new lows of late, I still feel there has to be a bottom. One day, I believe that people will get fed up of all that and start to look for something better.

If anybody wishes to continue discussing the issues Mr Hobbes has raised, maybe you might ask Natalie to see if she's free enough to contribute her input. I'm from the 20s so I unfortunately belong to this generation of buffoons but Natalie's in her 30s so she might have a different take on them from me. I think she's had a taste of both the old days and the times we live in today.

To Natalie: I'm surprised at what you said because I was told something different. I read that the Russian government could no longer afford to maintain the schools the Soviets once opened for talented children so the Yeltsin administration decided to let them wind down. I've heard that Putin has been doing something about the arts in recent years like cultivating the Marinsky Theater etc. The Marinsky's doing as well as ever but it seems the Bolshoi hasn't recovered fully from all the scandals of late even though I'm told it's slowly getting back on its feet.

It's good to know ballet's still doing well but I hope Russia will still be able to produce good singers. Hvorostovsky's good but I wish somebody like Lisitsian or the Ivanovs will come out of Russia someday. I heard that the Russian conservatories have been teaching the international style of singing instead of the old Russian style. It's a pity considering the standards which the Bolshoi set in their recordings from the 40s and 50s.

Speaking about pop music, do you have anything to say about Pussy Riot? The band's in Singapore at the moment. I've never heard the band's music but it seems that Gergiev and quite a number of influential Russian figures in the arts think very badly of them.

Unknown said...

An article published in the New York Times, under the byline of John Tierney, reported that a team of psychologists at the University of Southampton was conducting an ongoing series of experiments in a new field of social psychology called "nostalgia studies." According to the article, nostalgia in the 19th and 20th centuries "was variously classified as an 'immigrant psychosis,' a form of 'melancholia' and a 'mentally repressive compulsive disorder' among other pathologies," but is now being viewed as "common around the world, including in children as young as 7," based upon clinical studies in England, the Netherlands, Africa, South America, and China, among other countries. (The New York Times, July 8, 2013)

Anonymous said...

To Darren Seacliffe:
Russia is one of the richest countries of the world, and our government could afford to maintain a lot of art schools, if it were not for corruption and plunder of the budget. Yes, the decline of artistic education began in Yeltsin era ; teachers in art schools worked for food in those years. However, now it doesn’t get better. In contrary, the new laws on education forbid to teach anything not adjusted in accordance with the new standards. That is much worse than lack of money. Many schools are closed. I know what I’m talking about, because I work in an art school , which may be closed anytime as one, that doesn’t fit standards. Both Vaganova and Moscow ballet academies could have been closed last year only because accordingly to the new standards children can learn ballet from age 15 ( that’s too late for a professional career). The same was with music schools. This year the ballet academies and the main music school in Moscow found the way to legitimate their curriculums. Many other schools are still outlawed, because there are no famous influential people to defend them. The main reason for all that is corruption. Our officials steal too much money every year, and sometimes they have to save on something . That ‘something’ is education and social welfare, and that is why they invent new strange laws.

Ghergiev is in good relationship with the government and Putin, that’s why his theater is doing well. There are some other privileged artists, whose theaters have a lot of money from the state, but it doesn’t mean that arts prosper in Russia.

As for our famous punk group I think badly about them too:). Their action was banal, stupid and talentless. The punishment was too severe, of course. It’s a horrible story.


Anonymous said...

Another fantasic article from Dr. Drake. I listened to these recordings with pleasure, besides many of these singers were unknown to me. Bing Crosby is such a master! Though he considered himself ‘a phraser’, his voice was unique, and with his skillful phrasing he sang beautifully. Others make a perfect soundtrack for “Jeeves and Wooster’ series:). In general it’s very interesting how record technique changes vocal technique. This fact didn’t come to my mind before.

To Edmund:
Yes, there were many good things in the Soviet life, in spite of all the restrictions and ideology. Unfortunately , the contemporary problems originate from the Soviet period too.


Gerhard Santos said...

There's so much great information in this article that I have to share it with my friends. Thank you Sir Edmund!