Fridays with Rudy: Vagabond Dreams Come True, Ch. 21

In Chapter 21 of his 1930 memoir, Vagabond Dreams Come True, Rudy Vallée reveals how he came to use his signature megaphone while performing and how he felt about “copycat” orchestras that sprung up when Vallée’s Connecticut Yankees hit it big.

Chapter XXI


WHILE WE WERE in Hollywood making our picture we found it impossible to broadcast back to the East. In the first place it was necessary that we be prepared to work on the picture at any hour, day or night, and secondly the line charges for broadcasting across the continent runs into thousands of dollars and the reception in the East at best is never good when transmitted over three thousand miles; but radio fans become very devoted and attached to their radio favorites and many of ours seemed to resent our disappearance from the air even after I had told them we would be away for no longer than eight weeks.
These letters from our very devoted fans who upbraided us for going off the air made me very happy. But the letters I received from those who were confined to sick rooms and who found our music a comfort in their illness, and especially some notes I received from a little blind colony just outside of New York, these made me feel slightly conscience-stricken.
However, something almost laughable had happened in the broadcasting of dance music just before we left for the Coast which made me feel more at ease when I received these letters. It is a well-known fact in theatrical circles that our vaudeville appearances were sensational. Nearly everyone knew, too, that it was our radio broadcasts which had brought this popularity and it is a truism that whenever any product, person or group of persons achieve success in a particular way or through a particular method, that those who likewise desire to achieve success are quick to adopt the same methods and ideas.
Our sudden rise was the cue for other small and comparatively unknown broadcasting orchestra leaders who had been broadcasting for years, possily even before we had gone on the air, to drop their own style and to study our presentation over the air in hopes of discovering just what that something was which had won over our radio audiences. In fact, several of these leaders were frank enough to write or visit me and ask me to show them just how we broadcast and thereby aid them in achieving success. They were honest enough to admit that they too hoped that their adoption of our style would result in as a great a popularity for them.
By July and August just preceding our trip to the Coast, this adoption of our particular style had become a fact according ot the thousands of letters which reached me from listener-in, in which they all asked me if I was going to do something about it. Some showed me copies of letters, very denunciatory in tone, which they had sent to the radio stations asking them why they permitted such an obvious imitation.
But realizing that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and reliazing there was room enough for all of us, I said nothing, and in fact was pleased as the vogue we had apparently created. Then as these unhappy letters from those who missed us reached me, I felt consoled in the thought that in a way those orchestras back East that had admittedly attempted to present a program over the air in the simple style that had brought us such a wonderful reward, these orchestras helped make our absence less keenly felt.

Therefore, on our return from the Coast I made the following statement:
“And . . to any particular imitator or imitators who may have, in their adoption of our style of radio broadcasting, taken our place during our absence, I want to express my sincere thanks and I hope we will find at the receiving end of our broadcast all our old friends and many new ones.” The next day I was accused of all sorts of statements.
But in the first place I was extremely sincere in what I said and made no references to singing or to any particular act of mine but referred to a particular style of radio broadcast. I had never claimed to be the originator of the crooning style of singing; people have bene crooning songs for years, possibly long before I was born. AT least, ten years ago I used to listen with delight to the crooning records of Charles Kaley, Al Bernard, and Marion Harris, and I am very frank to say that I have patterned my style of singing after them. Nor was I the first to play certain fox trots very slowly, as Guy Lombardo and his orchestra were playing numbers in a very slow tempo several years before we organized our group of eight. He was forced to do it by the size of the small cafe in which he played, which made fast dancing impossible. I had never heard his band when we organized, but the first tune we played very slowly was the first tune I sang at the Heigh-Ho, named “Rain.” I had discovered after listening to this song that in order to understand its lyrics that it must be sung very slowly, otherise the lyrics became unintelligible or jerky. Then I discovered there were many other such fox trots, and although some people found the slow tempo difficult to dance to, I continued to play that type of song that way in order to properly present the song musically.
Eddie Davis was probably one of the first to use the two violins in a small dance orchestra. It was usually thought that one was enough, just as in the days before Whiteman, combinations of saxophones, trumpets and trombones were unheard of and the individual instruments then usesd were considered just right. In fact, the instrumentation of our band was really the result of the enthusiasm of Don Dickerman, who had heard Eddie Davis use two violins and had liked it greatly. I agreed with him heartily, having heard the same orchestra, and realized that that wonderful quality of two violins in a small dance orchestra is beautiful.
My use of the megaphone came through absolutely necessity as, although my voice is very loud when I speak or shout, yet when I use it musically it is not penetrating or strong, and the megaphone simply projects the sound in the direction in which I am singing. What I did was simply to risk the censure of public opinion by using it on every song, and singing many songs through it, 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 lyrics. Of course, when I broadcast, I do not use the megaphone, rather do I sing very softlly, and this same soft quality is amplified and brought to you over the air. From my mother came a part of the tonal quality of my voice so peculiar to the Irish, and from my father came that French nasal quality which is so apparent on the “n” and “m” syllables, especially over the air. The blending of these Irish and French vocal tones result in a voice peculiarly adapted to the microphone.
My endeavor was to make every word perfectly intelligible and full of meaning; in the words that express emotion and feeling I put emotion and feeling, that is I tried to make the word live for the moment it was being sung; and in aiding me to do this, the megaphone became associated with me so much so that I am often called “the man who originated single through the megaphone.” This is not correct for I did not originate the idea. However, I did invent a megaphone for my own especial purpose. I had noticed that most megaphones mae the words more unintelligible than ever, due to the fact that the flare of the cone was so small that people sitting at the sides of the theatre could not hear the lyrics at all. So I experimented and devised the large megaphone which I now use, which gives strength to the voice and yet makes it possible for everyone, even at the extreme right and left of the theatre, to hear. The manufacturer of my megaphone now tells me that he has received many orders for the size which I have adopted.
But to get back to ouyr particular style of radio broadcast. That is one thing I feel that we at least popularized, whether we introduced it or not.
Style, of course, includes tempo, but I am going to leave tempo out of the discussion because after all we are really not noted for our slow tempo though a lot of people may think we are; it was really several other features of our radio broadcasting style style pleased people without their actually being awrae of it; just as I imagine a great many people have liked a particular room, or painting, or any number of thing without actually knowing why, just so do many people enjoy our programs without actually nwoing why, intead of being bored, they find the program refreshing and comforting. That is where psychology and thought on my part unquestionably come in. When we first went into broadcasting, I spent whole hours on each program, being very careful to present tunes that had a significance of their own. I was very careful, as I said in a previous chapter, that no tunes of similar nature or key should ever follow each other (that is, two Oriental fox trots are never to be found next to each other). Furthermore, by taking the heart of the piece (the chorus)—and by presenting just enough choruses of each tune to leave our audiences wanting more, we made groups of numbers that were bound to please nearly everyone. Society orchestra leaders played choruses one after another, for years, but too many choruses of the same tune and without any thought, contrast of type or key, and unknowingly they have bored not only their listeners and dancers, but themselves and their men.
In this particular phase I believe we were the first to play groups of carefully selected choruses in which every chorus was contrasted with the next.
Again, too, our style includes my method of announcing. I was not the first orchestra leader to announce; Lopez and Ernie Golden have been doing it at their pianos for years. Specht and Bernie were permitted this unusual privilege by the broadcasting companies, but these were rare cases because the broadcasting companies were loath to permit orchestra leaders to make the announcement, as most of them failed to observe the company regulations. Announcements made while the music goes on were not a new idea of mine either, but possibly the idea of making all announcements, station, commercial, and musical, as I used to do on the Herbert Jewelry Hour, was a bit novel. It was only because the small stations that I began on allowed me carte blanche in everything I did that I was able to carry out my idea of making all announcements against a soft musical background.
My conception of a perfect radio hour is one that should at all times keep the listener up in the clouds of sentiment and feeling. But when the music stops and a matter-of-fact voice begins in cold speech to name the station, and hour, or discuss a product, the listener is brought back to cold, stark, everyday earth and existence. My intention is that those who listen in on our programs shall, from the time we begin to the time we end, be lulled, as it were, into a feeling of happiness, contentment and enjoyment with no disruptions or interruptions, which I consider matter-of-fact station or commercial announcements without music are.
I believe it is this effort of mine that has pleased so many people without their really knowing it, and a little reflection may convince you that I am justified in so believing.
No, even if I could, I would not stop those who have adopted our radio ideas from so obviously doing it. There is room enough for all of us and these imitators will, if they are honest with themselves, admit the mimicry which they hope will bring the same reward to them.

Read Chapter 22

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