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.
The Palais Royal was at its height in beauty and popularity. Whiteman’s band was never better. After introducing myself to one of the finest men in the band,—a young Californian named Don Clark, who arranged a great many of Whiteman’s wonderful recordings and who was likewise a Wiedoeft protégé and perhaps as great a saxophonist as Wiedoeft himself—I sat among the players and was thrilled as only a country boy listening to the world’s greatest band could be.
Clark was very interested when he knew I was going to meet Wiedoeft and we became firm friends.
The following day came my appointment with Wiedoeft. His manager, Joe Davis, whom i have mentioned before, had been very friendly in his letters to me and finally did lead me to the greatest saxophonist in the world.
I found Wiedoeft so wonderful that I have told you about him, more in detail, elsewhere.
Two days later I made my first real record. I will never forget how nervous I was as I made the Columbia record of a simple semi-classic called “Japanese Sunset.”
After making two “masters” of this tune I went over to the Edison recording laboratories where I was given a test and where they asked me if I could record a very fast technical solo. But I had only been studying the instrument a little over a year and my mastery was far from the brilliant technical solo stage. I knew my limitations and told them that I could only play a simple tonal solo, such as “Mighty Lak’ A Rose.” They recorded this, and although it was satisfactory tonally it was not the type of solo they wanted, so nothing came of it.
I went back to Maine very happy with the realization of all my dreams.
My first recording with a band came when I substituted for a sick saxophonist in a Boston band then playing in New York. This was back in 1923, when I was playing for Gilda Gray at the Rendezvous with a group of Yale boys. We did a phonograph record for Victory which was not released, but which I heard many times afterwards and which showed me that I had a good recording tone.
That same summer I recorded another solo for another company. I paid them even more than I had paid the Columbia Company, but this record was a fine investment. On the strength of it the English phonograph companies promised me the opportunity of making many records, for which they agreed to pay me very well.
I made my decision to go to London after two years at Yale, and with a wonderful contract in my possession I sailed for London in the fall of 1924.
No sooner had I arrived in London than I found myself in a very fortunate position. The Havana Band with which I was placed and which was composed wholly of Englishmen, was just finishing a contract with Columbia, and was about to enter into a new contract with the Victor Company. Columbia knew that they were losing a fine drawing card and so began recording the Havana Band in a series of old time waltzes which could be released long after the termination of the contract. The Victory Company, on the other hand, wished to be able to release several records as soon as the contact had begun. And so I was kept very busy during my first few weeks in London, jumping from the Columbia Company to the Victory Company, and getting three times the number of recordings that the Havana Band had formerly been enjoying.
The extra pound ($4.86) I received, along with the pianist and the director, convinced me that my recording work was satisfactory, especially since I had not asked for it. It seemed that my baritone brought me a great deal of extra recording while in England.
I also had the extreme pleasure of accompanying Beatrice Lillie and Gertrude Lawrence in their first English Victory record. And I will never forget how happy I was to ride back to London from the little country town where the English Victor Company was, in a beautiful Rolls-Royce owned by Miss Lillie, who had been kind enough to offer me the lift back. It gave me a great deal of pleasure to meet her again when she came to the Shubert Theatre in New Haven, when I was at Yale.
I returned to Yale in the fall of 1925. During the winter I led four other boys at the Westchester Biltmore Country Club at Rye, the greatest country club in the world. At the end of the winter season of this little orchestra, I interested the boys in making a personal Columbia record of “You’ll Love Me Some Day, So Why Not Now?” and several tunes on the opposite side of the record.
The other side of the record was paid for by a man who sold records on campus territory. He ordered a thousand of the records and the Yale students bought them like hot cakes. Many of the boys sent them to their girls at various girls’ schools, and even today I get a tremendous thrill when I fin that little personal record in various places.
When I returned to Yale for my senior year there had been so many demands for more of this record that the dealer decided to purchase more. The tunes on the other side were now out of date; so on the afternoon preceding the Yale-Princeton game, 1926, I recorded a saxophone solo of “Kiss Me Again.” And again the record sold excellently.
I did not record again until the summer of 1927, following my graduation, when I arranged a recording date with the Edison Phonograph Company for the Yale Collegians, with whom I had been in vaudeville for the second time. We made “You’ll Love Me Some Day,” and another tune, which was released later.
During that summer, however, I received the first inkling that I had a recording voice. A band with which I had once played in Maine several years previous was playing in New York City and I watched them making some Edison records.
They had a vocal trio which did not sound so good on the “play back”; the leader asked me if I wished to try singing. Nothing loath, I consented and I did the finished records with them, receiving nothing for it. That was in September, 1927.
It was the January following that I began at the Heigh-Ho Club with my present group of boys. Soon after we organized we made several tests for a small company, which did not turn out well.
In the summer of 1928, when we played at Rye, the writer of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby” arranged a test for me with Victor; and even though I was suffering from a severe sore throat and cold, the rest was quite satisfactory and I was promised some incidental vocal choruses with some other bands.
The fall found us recording with a small company, a subsidiary of the Columbia Company. These records netted this company a small fortune, in fact, they are still making comfortable profits on records we made before we finished recording with them.
The Victor scouts saw our possibilities, and I likewise saw the realization of my dreams in a wonderful Victor contract. They gave me complete freedom of the laboratories, which is something unheard of. They put on a great advertising campaign and our relations with Victor have been most pleasant.
Recording work is interesting. As I feel that the average layman is just as curious about the art of making records as I had been, I will describe the process.
Today all recording is done through the microphone, which is simply an electrical means of conveying the sounds from the instruments, or the vocalist, to the needle which records the sound upon a wax disc. In the old days of horn recording, horns were used to conduct the sound.
We get to the laboratory about nine in the morning and run over the first tune once or twice to get warmed up. When the tune has been sufficiently rehearsed we play it over into the microphone; then the recording director, by placing a different type of needle into the wax grooves which have just finished catching the sound, plays it right back to us and we listen to the sounds we have just made, very much like a dictaphone recording.
This “play back” enables us to check up on incorrect positions of some of the men, and the length of the record, and indicates places where certain individuals are too strong or too weak.
After making the necessary adjustments, which we check up on by more “play backs,” we finally make a “master.” With the knowledge that it is a “master,” everyone becomes all nerved up, since one very bad note spoils the whole piece. However, unless luck is completely unfavorable, four “masters” are made of the tune. These go to the factory, are made into finished records and the best out of the three or four “masters” is the one that reaches the Victor stores.
There is no more tense or disheartening work than making records, because there are times when it seems impossible to make one “master.” In England, he who spoilt a “master” twice had to take the whole bunch out to a near-by pub for a drink.
I am very proud of the fact that the Victor Company has faith enough in us to leave us to our own salvation without the usual monitorship of a recording expert. All our records have been our own original ideas. The Victor Company has just renewed our contract for two years. This act, done by their very conservative directors at Camden, makes me happy, as it shows their faith in us as a permanent musical attraction and that they believe we are not a fad. Now I have reached the exact opposite stage to that when I paid to make records, which today strikes the recording executives as extremely humorous.