Fridays with Rudy: Vagabond Dreams Come True, Ch. 17

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.

Chapter XVII


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 course the greatest in the game are the men whose names stand out almost like names in history, such as Irving Berlin, with all his successful waltzes and early fox trots, Walter Donaldson, the Von Tilzers, Victor Herbert, creator of a higher type of semi-classical, popular music, Seymour Brown, Jerome Kern and many others I may have forgotten to mention.
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 fact, almost over night the town of Hollywood became transformed into the Tin Pan Alley of Broadway, and the hotels and merchants of the film centre are very grateful to sound pictures for this influx.
Some of the writers have produced some beautiful, simple tunes that have tremendously enhanced the value of the pictures for which they were written and have given our younger generation something to sing, whistle and dance to.
Of course I realize that those professionals and amateurs who have written one or two songs that have been fairly successful, or even hits, and then have ceased to write more will consider themselves just as much dyed-in-the-wool song writers as many of the others I have named. But I firmly believe that in the jargon of Tin Pan Alley the real song writer is he or she who continues year after year with a steady output of songs that are at least fairly successful.
The fact is, by one phrase of my own definition, I rule myself out of this coveted category. It is a disillusioning thing for me to say that my mind is not constantly over-run with melodies and lyrics. Rather is my mind usually occupied with problems of an every day nature. Spontaneously, I can produce any number of simple melodies that would probably be fairly popular, but I cannot claim for myself a talent like Bud De Sylva’s, Walter Donaldson’s or Jerome Kern’s. I know that the beautiful melodies and lyrics for which these men are responsible were not the result of piecework and unusual effort on their part, but rather came naturally within their horizons of consciousness, and stayed there until these writers saw fit to put them down.
Just what I might be able to do in the way of original compositions of song I do not fully know, because I have never sat down quietly in a spot calculated to inspire me. In the classroom at college either I wrote original themes or none at all. I have never been satisfied with any of my efforts that were similar to the work of others, and I always cast about for an original line of attack before I began a theme.
Some day I may so as Victor Herbert did, secure a soundproof room or an isolated place in the country with nothing to disturb me and see if I can create something very original in song. I have conceived an idea which will aid me greatly in deciding on the quality of what I will try to write, and with this idea I hope to compose something really very unusual.
The songs that so far bear my name were generally a combination between another and myself. one of the songs that I am most popularly indentified with has quite a unique history, so I will speak of it separately and in detail.
I am most popularly associated with “Vagabond Lover,” one of my early compositions, due to the fact that it became a country-wide hit, and was ideally suited to me in every way. Yet I feel that “Deep Night” was one of my best efforts, if not the best of all.
Following my graduation from college I played with the Yale Collegians in vaudeville for the summer, and fall found me in Boston leading a local orchestra there.
Our pianist was one of the greatest I have ever played with, a young Harvard boy who was in his senior year at college. He was a wonderful player and he knew that I esteemed his work very highly.
Then I left Boston and came to New York and after clubbing around I began at the Heigh-Ho Club with my present band. During Easter vacation in March, 1928, this boy, Charles Henderson by name, came to New York for a short visit. He called on me at the Heigh-Ho Club accepted my invitation to sit in and play a few numbers with us. I asked him to play several short choruses featuring himself.
After playing several tunes of the day he began a composition that made us all sit up and look at one another. I asked him what it was. He replied that it was merely something he had thought of recently. I thought it was beautiful and featured it the rest of the evening, keeping him at the piano. After a few repetitions we picked the melody up and played it with him.
Henderson wrote out a few parts of the piece and went back to Boston. We called the tune “Slavia,” for want of a better name since the nature of the piece suggested something Oriental, something Slavic, sombre and mystic.
We continued playing it through spring and summer until fall when we returned to the Heigh-Ho Club.
One night I felt the inspiration to write some words to fit the melody. As I considered the melody of the piece I realized there were several points with high notes that were fairly difficult for me to reach. The syllables containing double “e” on high notes make it easy for me to reach these notes and considering the piece was of such a mystic, dark nature, like night, the idea occurred to me to call it “Deep Night,” as the word “deep” would come in every case on these high notes.
My mental picture was of two lovers in the depths of a garden or a lover’s lane, or even woods, at night. The question that next occurred to me was, what could I say about the time and the place? I was handicapped by the fact that in the dark there naturally be little to see or hear, there was very little material for descriptive lines.
One of the psychological factors in a successful song is that it should deal with a great amount of “you” and “me”; all of us love to see the words “you” and “I”, because then the song holds a personal interest for us. I began:

“Deep night, stars in the sky above—“

This might seem a bit illogical due to the fact that the sky was supposed to be entirely dark and deep, but here I took an author’s license, as I did in the next line,

“Moonlight, lighting our place of love.”

Then the rustic sound that would be quite in keeping with this setting,

“Night winds seem to have gone to rest—“

Followed, as he looked at her,

“Two eyes brightly with love are gleaming.”

And then the words I thought would come from the lips of the lover, or even of the girl,

“Come to my arms, my darling, my sweetheart, my own;
Vow that you’ll love me always and be mine alone.”

And back to the description that gives me the greatest feeling of satisfaction.

“Deep night, whispering trees above,”
Kind night, bringing you nearer, dearer and dearer,
Deep night, deep in the arms of love.”

I began singing the song almost immediately, we had played the melody as a regular fox trot but it took several nights before we realized that it must be played quite slowly in order to get these lyrics easily in. I started giving it quite a play over the radio, putting it in practically every program.
I worked on this theory: if an unpublished song held any merit, by featuring it continuously over the air I would be able to bring attention to it, especially as the publishers or their scouts listen in to all radio programs to note the absence of their tunes as well as the inclusion of new and odd tunes. In this assumption I have found I am quite right.
There sprang up quite a demand for “Deep Night,” so much so that several big publishers called me up about it.
of course what may seem to be an unusual demand for a new tune really may be quite exaggerated since a most peculiar thing takes place when a tune is liked over the radio. The individual who likes it may go to one of the local music stores and ask for the tune there. Supposing the tune to be unpublished, or in the process of printing, the store will not have it. The individual then usually goes to the remainder of the music stores in the town or city, receiving the same reply at each store. Let us assume that five stores are visited. All five will call up their jobber, who will probably be in all five cases the same man; the jobber will receive five orders for that tune and it will appear that five different people wanted it, when in reality only one person has asked for it.
Therefore, when a jobber reports an unusual demand for a song I do not allow it to influence me too much, unless it is quite obvious that the demand is very, very great. In this case the demand seemed to be fairly genuine, and the publishers very much in earnest.
I wrote Henderson to send me the verse melody which he had not given us the first time. A few nights after it came some boys from the South visited me and asked for some form of manuscript of the tune to take back with them; so while my band was playing I sat down and wrote out my first verse.
This was considerably more difficult than the chorus, inasmuch as I felt I had to get something would lead up properly to the thought of the chorus. Naturally I thought of twilight and began,

“Shadows are falling,
And night is falling,
This is the time for love.
Day has just ended,
The moon has descended,
Lighting the sky above.
Day seemed so long, dear,
Waiting for you;
Moments seemed years to me;
Daylight has lost you,
And night time has brought you.
Would it could always be—“

Several days after this Henderson himself came to New York and I accepted a tea dance job at the Lombardy Hotel, simply to keep him with me as I admired his work so much; thus I lengthened my working day from eleven to thirteen hours, but I enjoyed playing with Henderson a great deal.
He seemed to feel that the show tunes which Fields, Rogers and Hart were writing were just what the public wanted. He liked the simplicity of the lyrics of “My Heart Stood Still,” and suggested to me that I should re-write the lyrics of “Deep Night” to make them more “matter of fact,” like the lyrics of “My Heart Stood Still;” that is, something to the effect: “I took a walk and sat down, I stood up and walked some more”—lyrics that were very occidental, very modern and unaffected. But he did not seem to realize that he had created a melody that “matter of fact” lyrics would not suit. Rather was there a depth and a sombreness to the melody that required lyrics of that nature.
He may not have seen my point then, but today I think he realizes that the lyrics I fitted to his melody were most suitable and appropriate.
I featured “Deep Night” as never before and finally we began the rounds of the publishers who were interested in the number. We found ourselves in the unique position of having a song that was greatly desired. Whereas the average amateur song writer, as we both unquestionably were, never gets any further than a stereotyped refusal from some office boy, we were, on the contrary, conduct to the private sanctum of the head of the firm himself where we sang the song for him.
The three big firms we visited all offered varying inducements to leave the song with them. One man who had seen no merit in the melody of the song the previous spring and who, a month before, had turned down both “Deep Night” and “Vagabond Lover,” now offered one cent more per sheet copy than any other publisher; but he antagonized Henderson by feigning indifference when he really greatly desired the tune.
Our decision to leave it with the publisher who received it was influenced by what we term the mechanical end of the tune. There are tunes that sell because they are easily playable and also pleasant to listen to, but “Deep Night” is not one of these; rather it is a difficult tune to play, though a most agreeable one to sit and listen to while someone else plays it. The mechanical side of the question concerns the number of ways each phonograph company records the tune, and how many piano rolls are recorded of it along with rolls for hurdy-gurdies, musical boxes and all other mechanical means of production. For each record or roll the recording company must send to the publisher two cents which are divided between the publisher and the writer.
This sum may sound insignificant, but when we reflect that some tunes are recorded on over ten million records and rolls, the resulting sum of $200,000, which is absolutely exclusive of the royalties on the sheet copies, is tremendous.
“Ramona,” for instance, was recorded nine different ways on Victor records, that is, three or four vocalists sang it, each on his or her own Victor record; it was recorded by an organ, and three or four orchestras also made their own records of the tune. One of these nine ways, by a prominent vocal artist, reached a sale of 1,500,000 records. Each of the phonograph companies, large and small, with foreign record royalties, the returns from the mechanical end of the song were staggering. The song netted the two writers about $75,000 each.
Obviously, the publisher who keeps in close and friendly contact with the recording directors is the one who is best assured of having his tunes recorded in the greatest number of ways. The firm with whom we left “Deep Night” stood in very well with the record men.
Realizing that “Deep Night” was a tune to be listened to and not played, due to its difficult key signature and minor vein, we felt we had done the wisest thing; and in view of its many recordings on all of the records today we know that our choice was a wise one.
I wrote the second verse when the printer was ready to go to press, and I feel that my lyrics of “Deep Night” adequately express this song.
I guess you can imagine the wonderful feeling it gave me when I stepped into the magnificent Roxy Theatre in New York City during one of their lavish stage presentations and heard one of their great tenors render songs, verse and chorus, and saw the ballet dance to the strains of it. And now I add to that thrill my pleasure at hearing the records by various artists including that gorgeous ensemble, the Victor Salon orchestra.
These give me a permanent satisfaction that I will enjoy, I hope, later on when I am no longer in the fray.
I have every record of “Deep Night” recorded in the different ways that each phonograph company had it made and I shall receive a great deal of happiness when I listen to these in later life.
I receive hundreds of manuscripts by mail in the course of a week. We do not solicit these and I do not really welcome them because I have found that the average amateur writes what might be classed as just a fair song, a song with a melody that is acceptable but usually trite; by that I mean that there is no novel or unusual twist in the sequences of melody. Rather it is so plain that it fails to attract or hold the attention, which is the function of the melody in any song. As for lyrics, the words that most amateurs suggest for songs are entirely unsuited to the melodies; the meters are absolutely illogical and always too flowery and poetic. A successful lyric should, like the melody, suggest an unusual thought, not necessarily elaborate or deep, but one that fits the melody, arrests the attention, and either pleases the humor, or, perhaps, has a tender meaning calculated to plunge the listener for the moment into a well of retrospection over some unhappy love affair.
“Vagabond Lover” is a good example of a simple melody and a simple thought, but the lyric has two or three lines that make one stop and think. The lines

“Some girls are quickly forgotten
And gone with the dawn of the day,
And some you remember
Like last glowing embers,”

are to my mind the heart of the entire piece. In them a philosophy is tenderly expressed, and the thought of the “last glowing embers” brings an attractive vision of a fireplace and a man sitting before it and seeing in its flames the faces of the girls he has known. Unquestionably it is just the suggestion one derives from those lines that made the song, together with its easily singable melody, the most popular song in the entire country during the summer of 1929.
“If I Had A Talking Picture Of You” is an example of a humorous song that has an entirely different appeal. In fact, the three boys who wrote this song are noted for the originality of the thoughts expressed in their songs.
It is very risky for anyone in my position to have very much to do with manuscripts from unknown persons. Most publishers are considered heartless by amateurs because they will accept or consider their manuscripts, but these publishers have learned from bitter experience that these unknown composers sometimes submit manuscripts which they did not write themselves, and such deceptions have caused very costly legal entanglements.
It is so difficult to prove, in the case of amateurs, the true authorship of the song, that I have adopted the policy of publishers and steadfastly refuse to consider manuscripts from anyone but a professional song writer. I realize that I may be, once in a hundred cases, losing a really good song, because once in a while, an amateur hits on both an unusual melody and a unique lyric, but not very often. Publishers have their own staffs of song writers who turn out more songs than publishers need and as it is, the few minutes I have between show is practically always taken up listening to these professional writers and their latest efforts.
Since the coming of the talking picture and songs for the picture, where there were ten new songs on the counter each month, today there are fifty or even a hundred, and the song that becomes a hit or even reaches a fair sale, must be an unusual song indeed. That is why good songs are really commercially worthless today. The song must be outstanding and very unusual in order to pay the publisher a profit.
It has been my pleasure to transcribe several old tunes and to see them reach a peak of popularity. By transcribing I mean taking a song which has been a failure in one tempo, revising it in spots, and putting it into a more suitable tempo, thus making it twice as acceptable. I did this in the case of “If You Were the Only Girl In the World,” which floundered around for twelve years as a fox trot, getting nowhere until I adapted it to waltz tempo. As a waltz it achieved a great success in our picture.
Likewise I revised “I Love the Moon,” a beautiful English tune with a very pathetic idea, written by a young man who knew that he was dying and who, in the song, tells of all the things he loves that he knows he has to leave behind him.
In “Me Queres” I tried my hand at translation, and translated the Spanish lyric into English, using my training in the Spanish Department at Yale to good advantage.
And in many a song that I have sung on the air I have delighted in making possible a version for men where before there was only a woman’s version, of the song, as in the case of “Can’t We Be Friends.”
And sometimes a change in a word here and a note there has made all the difference in the world. “A Little Kiss Each Morning” originally ended “A little kiss each morning, A little kiss at night.” To me “at” was repugnant and I repeated “each” for the last line and made it “A little kiss each morning, A little kiss each night.”
“Then I’ll Be Reminded Of You” was originally “And I’ll Be Reminded Of You.” To me the “then” was absolutely necessary for the sake of cause and effect, because the lines

“I’ll gather some June dreams,
I’ll search for some moonbeams”

lead up to the point where the one who does these things, says he will be reminded of his sweetheart, and I think that if you consider the thought of the two phrases you will find that “Then I’ll be reminded of you” follows much more logically.
It has been my great delight to bring to light songs which have been forgotten for years and to make them popular with a large audience when they had been sung in one section or locality of the country as a sort of folk song. Such a case was the song “I Love You, I Love You, I Love You, Sweetheart Of All My Dreams,” which was over five years old and which had been purely localized in Boston, and never attracted public attention until we first broadcast it from the Heigh-Ho Club.
Two tremendously successful examples of such revivals by publishers were “Ah, Sweet Mystery Of Life,” which was written for a Victor Herbert musical comedy many years ago and which made a fortune when revived by Witmark, the publisher, and the organ solo by Lemare. The latter, which was originally called “Andantino,” was put out as a popular song with the title of “Moonlight and Roses,” and made a tremendous fortune. In this case Lemare had no legal right to claim royalties as he had not copyrighted the melody in America, but in this case the publisher that justice should be done, and voluntarily gave Lemare more than he could possibly have received had the song been copyrighted.
I hope that I have, in the foregoing, indicated some of the fascination that song writing and publishing holds. It is a heart-breaking business at best and many of those in it would like nothing better than to get out of it, but like the stage, it holds a lure of romance and intrigue that is very hard to get away from.

Read Chapter 18

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