In Chapter 17 of his 1930 memoir, Vagabond Dreams Come True, Rudy Vallée regales the reader with tales of the songwriting game and music publishing business.
SONGS AND SONG WRITING
I DO NOT want to destroy any illusions that my songs may have built up about me but I am really not, at least in the accepted sense of the word, a “veteran” song writer, although I have more than the required number of songs to my credit to entitle me to make application for membership in the American Society of Authors, Composers, and Publishers.
Along Tin Pan Alley the real song writer, in the accepted sense of the word, is he who has not only one or more hits to his credit, but whose mind is continually filled with lyrics and melodies and who can write a song almost at command. Of course it is greater proof of this gift to have five or six or even more successful hits to one’s credit; but the man whose mind is prolific enough to produce one song after another that will be at least moderately successful, if not a terrific hit, is the veteran song writer.
Of recent years there has grown up a group of young men who have twisted the music scale into odd combinations to the satisfaction of their purses and vanity. Benny Davis has the most hits to his credit, Gus Kahn is considered the greatest lyric writer of them all—at least he is the highest paid individual, and his name has appeared on so many song that it is almost impossible to keep count of them. George Gershwin has also written some very clever popular tunes besides his rhapsody, although his popular show tunes have never achieved sensational success. Mabel Wayne, perhaps the only really successful woman writer, has several hits to her credit; while Mary Earl who wrote “Beautiful Ohio” several years ago, seems to have rested on her oars ever since. Marian Gillespie is another not heard from in years.
The clever team of Jimmy McHugh, once a plumber, and Dorothy Fields, daughter of the great comedian, evolved some very fine music for several Broadway productions of the season of 1928-1929, including the year’s hit, “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby.”
After having written “Dardanella” and left it on the shelf for two years, Fred Fisher was finally persuaded to allow a famous re-write musician to make a beautiful arrangement of it, thus turning it into a really salable piece, and its success was instantaneous and historic. He had written several hits before, but Dardanella was his greatest.
Nearly everyone in the East knows of the fantastic record of three young boys, one of whom for years had displayed his talents in University productions, while another had been a night club wiseacre and the third who had always been a song writer. These three boys, after collaborating on a few tunes for other publishers finally incorporated and their success is the talk of Tin Pan Alley. Within the period of a year Bud De Sylva, Lou Brown, and Ray Henderson not only wrote enough tunes to pay for the building they now own but declared a handsome dividend for themselves at the end of their first year.
Theirs is the outstanding success of the song world, but of course, they are perhaps the most gifted trio of song writers in existence, having to their credit the music of “Good,” “Three Cheers,” “Hold Everything,” “Follow Through,” “Sonny Boy,” “Together,” and many other tunes too numerous to mention.
Two newcomers, Roy Turk and Fred Ahlert, have written three or four successes and can feel very pleased with themselves. Who doesn’t know their “I’ll Get By,” “Mean to Me,” and “To Be In Love, Specially With You?”
I could go on indefinitely.
On the Pacific Coast there are two young men, Herb Brown and Arthur Freed, whose “Broadway Melody” hits, “Doll Dance,” “Pagan Love Song,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” and many other tunes of an instrumental nature have earned them a princely fortune, enough so they can retire at any time.
Other famous west coast and middlewest writers are Isham Jones whose work with Gus Kahn gave us such beautiful tunes as “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” “Spain,” “The One I Love Belongs to Somebody Else,” “It Had to Be You,” and many others.
But I must end my list even at the risk of injuring the feelings of those whom I have not mentioned. I feel the ones enumerated are the outstanding writers, and anyone I may have failed to speak of will forgive me.
Most of these songsmiths are at the time of my writing either on the Pacific Coast, or en route to it or from it, as the creation of sound pictures and the need for music to fit situations in these sound pictures has required the presence of these fertile musical minds. They must be on the spot where, as the picture is rehearsed, they can see more easily just how the song must fit the scene. At unheard of guaranteed weekly salaries, with their royalties from each song sheet and record as an extra bonus, these men have rushed to the Coast with even greater anticipation and hope than did the miners in the gold rush of ’49.
In Chapter 16 of his 1930 memoir, Vagabond Dreams Come True, Rudy Vallée recounts his earliest experiences in the recording studio.
IT’S IN THE WAX
MAKING phonograph records always had a great fascination for me. My first thrill of hearing my voice in song or saxophone in solo came when i was at the University of Maine in 1921.
The authorities of the University of Maine were interested enough in my musical efforts to allow me the use of some of the buildings on the campus for my practice. The agricultural part of the college had a large building known as Agricultural Hall where one learned all the science of the soil and animal life of the farm and barnyard. High up on the fourth floor were large classrooms that were empty at night. In one of these I used to practice certain very disagreeable sounding exercises. For instance, for the development of saxophone tone I started with the lowest note on the sax and held it as long as the deep breath I had just taken would permit. I have held certain notes of the saxophone for two minutes.
Of course nothing could be more monotonous or unpleasant to hear than these long tone exercises since it took me one hour to come up the scale, holding each note as long as possible. Therefore, to avoid driving others to insanity, I sought complete isolation where I had the comfortable feeling that I was disturbing no one and likewise would not be disturbed.
In some of the various offices on this floor were Ediphones, or dictaphones, as they are more commonly known. Since a letter dictated into one of these could be reproduced for the stenographer’s ear, I saw no reason why I could not likewise reproduce music; and so I recorded on these round dictaphone cylinders several simple melodies on the saxophone, announcing them very much in the fashion the old Edison cylinders announced the name of the record.
Although the dictaphone is perfected for the recording of speech in letter form, it is far from perfect when one attempts to record a sustained musical note on it. The rotation of the wax disc upon which a musical sound has been recorded must be absolutely perfect and the tube, or horn, which leads the sound to the needle that scratches upon the wax disc must be of a certain type and size to catch all of the notes being reproduced. The dictaphone being imperfect in this respect proved to be quite unsatisfactory for perfect reproduction of my musical efforts.
However, it still gave me some idea of phrasing, style and tone. I still have several of these old dictaphone cylinders stowed away and prize them very highly, perhaps as highly as some of our Victor records that today are so popular.
Easter vacation, 1922, saw my first chance to really record a saxophone solo The Victor Company had written me, in response to my letter inquiring about the possibility of recording a saxophone solo, that they had their saxophone artists and saw no opening for me.
However, the Edison Company, having no great saxophone artist, promised me an audition and a test recording.
The Columbia Phonograph Company maintains what is known as a Personal Record Department which will record, for the sum of fifty dollars, any vocal or instrumental sounds which can be recorded on a ten inch record, that plays for three minutes. This recording is done in the same room that the greatest of their artists use, on the same machines and with the same experts that devoted to these artists. Then they allow you the choice of one of two proofs, as in the case of proofs of photographs, and the one selected can be purchased singly at one dollar or in lots of 500 at fifty cents each.
It was worth fifty dollars to me (although that seemed a lot of money then), to go to New York and do this. So, I arranged a day during my Easter vacation of 1922 to perform a simple solo. I left Bangor, Maine, with three great objectives: first, to see and hear Paul Whiteman‘s orchestra at the Palais Royal, second, to meet Rudy Wiedoeft personally (as his manager had promised me an appointment) and third, to make my first solo record.
As the train stopped in New Haven for a few minutes and I saw those young college boys, dressed in the height of college fashion, I never dreamed that I would some day be on that same station platform, likewise a Yale man, and wearing the same type of clothes.
In New York, I realized every one of my ambitions. It was my first visit to the metropolis and I was duly impressed, as every small town person probably is.
In Chapter 15 of his 1930 memoir, Vagabond Dreams Come True, Rudy Vallée pays homage to the man who served as his saxophone mentor and muse, Rudy Wiedoeft.
THE SAX GOD—WIEDOEFT
Probably most people connect my name with the saxophone, but only a few know that all my life I have had a great desire to play some sort of a musical instrument. I went from drums to clarinet, to trumpet, to saxophone.
The clarinet I studied faithfully for ten weeks and then was forced to neglect it, due to a very hard job in a sawmill during the summer vacation. When I think of how close I came to losing my fingers I thank my lucky stars that I finished that summer’s work without receiving so much as a scratch from a saw. Many times when I worked on the “edger,” the saw teeth striking a knot in the board would throw it back so that the palm of my hand just missed the teeth.
I took up the study of the trumpet while working back stage with a stock company, and then rented a saxophone when I began my senior year in school. The similarity between saxophone and clarinet made it possible for me to play a limited range of notes on the saxophone. The horn that I had was called a C Melody, being pitched in C. I could read song sheets, the violin parts, without any transposition. I used to play at night with several acquaintances who gathered in a bowling alley where near beer was served, and go canoeing with a banjo player or a violinist. Always I played for my own amusement and for those who cared to listen. Finally I was engaged by a small dance orchestra playing two nights a week in a Pythian Temple Building. This led to more engagements in northern Maine with what had been Maine’s most famous dance orchestra, Welch’s Novelty Orchestra.
By that time I had begun to think I was quite a saxophonist; the boys in that band, and in fact every band I played with, made so much of me that I was very pleased with my progress.
I had read somewhere, possibly in a Victor catalogue, about a Victor record that Joseph C. Smith and his orchestra had played called “Caravan.” This was the composition of a young man, a saxophonist by the name of Rudy Wiedoeft, who, the article said, dropped in when Smith was recording the number and played a chorus of variations which were truly marvelous. Just before I had left for the summer engagement in northern Maine I had listened to a record that this young man had made with another saxophonist and two pianos (these four called themselves the Wiedoeft-Wadsworth Quartet). On this record, called “The Crocodile,” the saxophones had employed a peculiar form of tongueing known as “slap tongue” because it gives forth from the bell a sound very much akin to that produced by two boards being slapped together. I noticed that this always intrigued the layman even as it did me. After experimenting a little bit with the mouthpiece and reed, I stumbled onto this effect, and it stood me in great stead in those early days, and brought a lot of attention to my playing, as many saxophonists are to able to do it.
Then in the fall when I returned from the summer engagement, the Victor Company released the first solo played by Rudy Wiedoeft on the same type of instrument that I used, the C Melody. Both numbers were his own compositions and one of them is his pièce de résistance, that one that he is always associated with, namely “Saxophobia.” They are masterpieces even today, and I truthfully believe no one could record them in quite the way Wiedoeft did. Although Wiedoeft’s beautiful tone was apparent in “The Crocodile” it remained for this wonderful record of “Valse Erica” and “Saxophobia” to show me the great possibilities of the saxophone as a concert solo instrument.
I wrote Wiedoeft, asking him a few technical questions. The weeks dragged by but no reply came, so I wrote a second, and a third, and a fourth, and so on until I had written eight letters. I made up my mind that if persistence counted for anything. I would hear from him, but I did not realize that I was writing to perhaps the busiest man in New York City. Between phonograph records, solo appearances, and a thousand and one pressing engagements, Rudy Wiedoeft had no time for answering fan mail. Then again, Rudy Wiedoeft had no time for answering fan mail. Then again, Rudy dislikes letter writing, not being of a particularly literary turn of mind. I did not hear from him until I came down with acute appendicitis in December, 1920. This time, noting that I was sick and in the hospital, he answered my letter, replying to my questions in full.
I had begun the study of the saxophone with a man who had had many years’ experience with the instrument. This man decried the use of “slap tongue” as being “illegitimate,” and perhaps it was pity for my helplessness in the hospital combined with irritation at the criticism of “slap tongue” by this instructor that made Wiedoeft reply. Anyway, he censured my instructor roundly for daring to criticize him, inviting him to come to New York City where, as he said, the phonograph business was open, and any one of the phonograph companies would welcome him with open arms if he were as good a saxophonist as he was a critic. Wiedoeft’s final point impressed me very strongly. He said that anything is legitimate so long as it produces the goods. I never quite forgot that statement, and although it is not actually or completely true, it comes pretty near being.
In Chapter 14 of his 1930 memoir, Vagabond Dreams Come True, Rudy Vallée offers his opinions on jazz—both the music and the term, the latter of which he felt strongly was too often misused. He also offers some rather questionable history lessons on the origins of jazz.
Personally, I would not have dared to have done likewise because I do not believe that I sufficiently understand what the term means to talk about it; and I have found, upon questioning those who use the word frequently and seemingly with understanding, that in reality they know nothing at all specific as to its meaning.
To some it is “peppy” music, to others a lot of noise, and to still others it is the waving of instruments in the air. I have found no two people who give the same definition of the word.
The real propagators of the word were a group of men in New York, who, back in 1918 and 1919, banded together and called themselves the Dixieland Jazz Band. The outstanding characteristic of their records, as I recall “The Ostrich Walk” was that there was no distinguishable melody; every man seemed to be striking out for himself, playing a part of his own and only take care that it did not conflict with the general harmony. These men were the first to use the term, and through their success the word came into wide-spread popularity.
But today “jazz” is applied to almost any form of orchestra or band music which is not strictly classical, and this is a grave error, inasmuch as dance music may be just as sweet and beautiful as true classical music. Therefore I believe it is absolutely incorrect to use the word so indiscriminately.
The unusual feature of my own orchestra is a clearly defined melody at all times, therefore I do not see how we could rightly be characterized as a “jazz” band; and I would not term our music “jazz,” even though I occasionally “laugh” on the saxophone and others in the band play what we term “blue” notes and unusual rhythms.
Whenever possible I correct any publicity that would style our little group of eight a “jazz” band, or me a “jazz” band leader.
“Blue” notes are simply an exaggerated sliding up and down of the pitch of the note and this is studied in legitimate music, just as arpeggios, rhythms, chromatic runs and accents are all studied and used in legitimate music and in the highest of classical music.
Truly, I have no definite conception of what “jazz” is, but I believe that the term should be applied, in view of the fact that such music came up from the South, to the weird orchestral efforts of various colored bands up in Harlem, the Negro section of New York City. These bands have a style all their own, and at times it seems as though pandemonium had broken loose. Most of the time there is no distinguishable melody; in fact even though they are playing a popular tune with a definite melody, it is absolutely impossible for even a musical ear to tell the name of the piece.
It was the similar style of colored musicians in the South (New Orleans to be exact), that first prompted this group of white men, to adopt that type of music and style themselves the Dixieland Jazz Band.
But the public uses many words the meanings of which are very vague and doubtful, and a crusade on my part to attempt to show that the word is incorrectly used in the majority of cases, where the instrumentalist is simply employing legitimate and basic rudiments of music, would be absurd. A little reflection on the part of most anyone who thinks at all will show that the word “jazz” nine times out of ten is misapplied.
Although Whiteman’s music is really symphonized syncopation, occasionally he permits his brass team to play in this Negro style and since he is unquestionably the king of dance orchestra leaders, he is rightly termed “The Jazz King.”
In Chapter 13 of his 1930 memoir, Vagabond Dreams Come True, Rudy Vallée addresses a question that he claimed occasionally came up: Was his experience in college responsible for his success? As a Yale man, Rudy had strongly felt opinions on the topic, and he’s not shy about sharing them.
Did College Help Me?
I HAVE occasionally been asked whether or not I thought that my college training was responsible for my success.
Like most questions I believe that is a difficult one to answer with a single negative or affirmative since it requires much discussion and explanation.
There has always been animosity on the part of many people who have attended a university toward those who have. This is probably subconsciously prompted by envy and regret as there are very few who will not admit that if they had the opportunity they would go to college.
It is true that in the past the requirements for entering college, for remaining within its walls, and for securing a degree were not as exacting as they are today. There were not so many applications for admission as the average college receives today, and there was a looseness about the times that was felt n the classrooms and on the campus.
But today the average college can accommodate only one third of the men who apply for admission each fall. Therefore the board of admission and the faculty feel that in justice to the thousands who are turned down, those admitted should give the best in them in an effort to utilize all of the wonderful advantages that the college affords them. In other words, among those refused admission are many who perhaps would give anything to have been admitted and who would work very hard, and for the more fortunate ones who are safely in to rest on their oars and become, as it were, slackers, is an injustice to these others.
I do not know a great deal about the requirements of other colleges but I do know that to enter, stay within and graduate from Yale requires work, hard work and plenty of it. Neither money, family prestige nor athletic ability will keep a man in Yale University; and I have seen some of the biggest athletes severely penalized for misdemeanors that seemed comparatively slight. In fact, the faculty at New Haven has just as high a regard for the fifty percent of the men who are working their way through as they have for the remainder.
It is an absolute impossibility for a young man to remain for the four years of a college course within this university (and I firmly believe such is the case in nearly all of our other American universities) without being tremendously affected by his classroom and social contacts. It is unreasonable to suppose that one could associate with the eager, fresh and talented minds of students and the cultured, highly specialized minds of the faculty without receiving some sort of impression. It is impossible to cheat in the classroom and it is impossible to pass most of the courses without reading and study.
Therefore it is an unavoidable fact that those who march in cap and gown at Commencement have, perhaps in spite of themselves, received a great deal from their college life.