Fridays with Rudy: Vagabond Dreams Come True, pt. 7

In Chapter Seven of Rudy Vallée’s 1930 memoir, Vagabond Dreams Come True, Rudy undertakes what he terms the “difficult and delicate task” of explaining his success, especially in the field of radio broadcasting.

Chapter VII

Radio Brings Us Out

I have been confronted by difficult and delicate tasks in the course of my life, but this is perhaps the most unusual and difficult that I have yet faced. With the feeling that there is a need for one definite explanation from an authentic source as to just how eight young men could achieve, in these days of a bored and blasé show world, the sensational success that seems to have been ours, I am going to give my idea of it all.
As I said in my foreword, everyone seem to have felt the urge to offer an opinion, an explanation, as to our past, and present and even a prophecy as to our future.

Being one of those that they have theorized about, I feel that I should, even at the risk of destroying some of the romance about us, offer my own theory as to the reason for this so-called phenomenal success.
The reason that this task is so dangerous for me is simply that it is very risky for one who is still active in his artistic profession to attempt a sincere explanation as to the reason for his being a success.
Can you imagine just how difficult it would be for, let us say, John Barrymore, to offer an explanation for his unquestioned success, by stating that he believes it is due to his profile, his six feet and several inches, the masculinity of his frame, his ability to make passionate love, the richness and romance in his voice combined with a charm, personality and acting ability that came to him as family traits?
It has been just as difficult for me to answer when various interviewers have asked me: “To what do you attribute your success?”
Of course I’m not forgetting that our success is due in a great measure to the efforts of the seven boys who began with me and who are still with me. They have contributed greatly in the beauty of their tone and rhythm to the attractiveness of our programs and presentations. And we were later on extremely fortunate in having as my manager Edwin Scheuing, a young man whose coolness and level-headed business ability has secured for me all these present wonderful engagements at almost unheard of salaries. I am sure that no one could have “sold” us better than he. It is an undeniable fact, however, that a general is credited with the victory, and perhaps rightly so, in the case where the factors and strategies which were first born in his mind, and later carried out on the field by the men, brought the desired victory.
I consider Paul Whiteman the fore-runner and creator of a style of dance music hat has been rightly termed symphonized syncopation. His was the first mind to apply the principles of a symphony orchestra to his instrumentation and style of music; he was the first to split the chorus up into phrases, some of which were played by the saxes, suddenly followed by the brass for several more phrases and then by the strings. He was really the first to use several violins, several saxophones and a full team of brass.
The furore that his first records and early personal appearances made was richly deserved. The sign of his double chin has become the world over, symbolic of a certain type of dance music; his orchestra has become an institution just as famed as many of our symphony orchestras; and today, practically ten years from the time he first came to New York almost penniless, and completely unknown in the East, he is held in high esteem by the great public which speaks for itself. Nothing could endure the way Whiteman and his work have endured unless there were good, sound, sterling worth in it. My hat is off to him!
I believe I can honestly and rightly feel a personal pride and satisfaction in our success since I also, like Whiteman, had carried in my head for several years an idea for the presentation of dance music with song which first found expression through my little group of eight men in January, 1928.
Therefore, I feel I am not egotistical when I confine most of this explanation for our sudden rise to myself and my ideas. And yet in the explanation I do not want to destroy any of that beautiful halo of romance that so many have built around us and our music.
Probably the proper time for a very cold-blooded, matter-of-fact, and absolutely precise analysis of the reasons and events back of the furore that we have created will be when we have completely retired from our present labors and activities.

*     *     *     *     *

The underlying factor for the tremendous appreciation that we seem to enjoy at present is what I would term psychological reaction to music or, in case the word psychological should frighten you from reading further—let us say simply the way music affects human beings.

To be wholly aware of a fact, to fully appreciate its value one should really have had some reaction to it himself. I first observed the effect of music upon myself, and then on others; and my observations in the case of other people, led to the type of music we now produce.
It is common knowledge that music which represents a story or compositions that are interesting because of a connection with some incident in the author’s life, may affect human beings in such a way as to make them sad or happy, as the case may be. But few of us realize that music in itself, even just the sheer melody of it, may through its key color and arrangement of notes, affect one in various ways.
Who is there that has not felt the thrill that chases up and down the spine, the urge to go out and conquer, a choking sensation of the throat, or throwing out of the chest, at the martial strains of “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” played by a spirited band?
I well recall the wonderful thrill I felt, when I was in the Navy in 1917. After a week of scrubbing walls and clothing, coaling ship and performing the hundred and one tasks that seem so plentiful at a training station, what a reward it was when on Saturday mornings, clad in fresh clean uniforms, with our rifles on our shoulders, we marched behind a spirited band, across the green grass in the sunlight! The strains of those wonderful march tunes still linger in my memory; they were among the most inspiring things in my youth and more than recompensed for all the hated drudgery of naval routine.
Then, at quite the other extreme, is the somber and funereal music that motion pictures orchestras play when the news weekly show the funeral of some great personage. These compositions were only selected for this type of picture because there was something in the vein and twist of the melody and in the harmony which produced the impression of sadness and tragedy.
In fact, by mentioning the different types of music that for years have been identified with certain types of things in pictures, I can best illustrate this reaction which is partly physical and partly psychological, to different types of music.

*     *     *     *     *

I had watched the effect of different types of dance music upon those who listened to orchestras. Dance music itself has to me been divided into two more or less clearly defined types: first, the type of music usually played with loud volume and in a manner calculated to make one feel the urge to beat time to it with the feet. This music usually has little melody and its essential characteristics are rhythm, syncopation, accent and a tendency to create unrest, the desire to move the hands and body, and to tap the feet. This today is characterized as “hot” music and is that which, among both musicians and the public in the past, has been termed “jazz” and which has always had a great many followers and exponents.
Although I myself enjoy a finished rendering of this type of music yet I realized that its appeal is limited, both in the number of those who enjoy it and in the length of time they will appreciate it. One tires of this style of music very soon as one number sounds practically the same as the next. It finds its warmest admirers at society parties where nearly everyone has imbibed just enough to “feel good.”
I realized that those who make a band successful by their appreciation are not musicians or those who frequent debutante parties, country club or yacht club celebrations, but rather the great masses of hard working people who come home at night from a hard day’s toil and who seek comfort and rest in music of a sweet, smooth and quiet nature, either from records and radio or theatres.
When we first began playing I had no idea of the tremendous scope or power of radio, because the truthful fact is that up to the time I first went on the air I had only listened in on one broadcast, and that was a prize fight. My broadcast experience in England had been limited to that of a saxophonist playing in a band. I did not direct or sing during our nightly broadcasts from the Savoy Hotel, but was one of a band composed of Englishmen and had no opportunity, since I never saw the fan mail that our English band received, to judge the power of radio or the type of numbers that a radio audience liked.
But my observation of the reactions of theatre audiences and dance audiences, combined with my own feelings, had shown me that simple melodies played in a simple way could hold the attention more firmly and for a longer period than any other form of music, even better than grand opera, symphonies, choral music and all types of novel band tunes.
I am more firm than ever in my belief today, since I have had so much opportunity to judge the correctness of my deductions from my fan mail, applause at both the Club and theatre, and the sales of sheet music and records.
Therefore I determined that should I ever have a band of my own, our music would be what is commonly called commercial, that is, music that would readily sell itself, that would easily reach the heart, that anyone and everyone would like and understand.
I considered in detail the presentation of songs as they were commonly presented by dance bands, since the dance band was to be my medium of expression.
The average orchestration begins with an introduction, more or less pompous and symphonic, which is the effect of the symphonized syncopation of Paul Whiteman; then a verse which of course leads to the chorus; the chorus repeats itself and is followed by what is termed a modulation, which is a bridge or channel whereby the orchestra proceeds to change its key so that the chorus may be played, for the sake of contrast, in another key; and then by another modulation, usually a long-winded affair building up to the original chorus and thence to a coda, which is a formal symphonic way of saying “Good-bye.”
I reflected on the effect of each part of an orchestration upon myself and I noticed that my attention was inclined to wander during the modulations and on the verse, unless the verses were exceptionally good. I did not, however, forget that my viewpoint was that of a musician and a dance orchestra player and that what might fascinate me might bore a layman. But I felt very safe in surmising that if a modulation failed to hold my attention when I, more than anyone else appreciated the intricacies involved in it and the beauty of it as a musical feat, then certainly it was practically worthless to those who did not understand its significance.
This, however, was not the only reason that I adopted our present routine of playing only choruses.
When we began at the Heigh-Ho Club we had orchestrations to play from, but, as I have said before, we needed brass, that is, two trumpets and a trombone and two more saxophones, to really do justice to those orchestrations. We were therefore obliged to play only choruses. Realizing that in presenting the chorus we were giving the best part of the piece, what might be termed the sweetmeat of the meal then, I felt that, as I have also previously said, I must avoid monotonous repetition by changing the sweetmeats every three minutes or so. So I adopted this style.
Now I have said that there are two different styles of music. One is the “hot” style which at its best is rhythmic and quite loud with little melody in evidence. The other method of presentation is to play straight or just “as is” with everything full, round, rich and clean.
It was only a short time before my boys saw my viewpoint. My pianist already had a wonderful style, but I finally game him to understand that I wanted every piano chorus that he took alone to sound like a pianola, or as though four hands were at the keyboard. I knew that this effect could be procured and that he could procure it better than anyone else. I myself held every note to its fullest value and played almost continuously, and I finally succeeded in securing from the melody instruments a style that I pictured as a weaving in and out of melodies and obbligatos.
The fact that I enjoyed our music and felt a great thrill of satisfaction at the end of our first week, made me believe that we had something in our happy combination that would delight the heart of anyone who cared for music.
Several weeks after our entrance into the Heigh-Ho Club we made our first broadcast.
I suppose it was perhaps a most fortunate thing for me that the Heigh-Ho Club could not afford an announcer and that station WABC was short of them. Mr. Sampson, one of the executives, and a most courteous gentleman, dined with me a little while before we went on the air and in a very quiet and efficient way gave me some good advice. He suggested that I make my announcements very simple, without wisecracks or facetiousness.
I did not know that it was a habit of broadcasting orchestra leaders to acknowledge requests. Mr. Sampson left that policy to my discretion. Possibly my refusal to mention names, read letters and telegrams, acknowledge phone calls and requests has antagonized many people, but it has pleased infinitely more people and I hope has made our programs much more musical; because it is commonsense that to interrupt a musical program by reading a telegram or letter, stating that Mrs. Minnie Zilch has just phoned up to say her little baby of five years old enjoyed our rendition of “Georgie Porgie” and asks us to play it again, detracts from the musical value of the program.
Rather than be inconsistent I have adhered almost invariably to programs without acknowledgments.
Twice when I knew my Mother was very ill at our home up in Maine, I tried to cheer her and make her happy by telling her that I was to play her favorite composition, a beautiful Czecho-Slovakian waltz, called “Poëm.” Other than that, and personal mentions I have been forced to make by the directors of some of our programs, I have avoided these things, which are interesting to only a very few people and quite boring to many.
While at Yale I had been a great admirer of Professor William Lyon Phelps. He has one of the most remarkable styles of speech delivery I have ever listened to—smooth, easy, cultured, extremely entertaining and interesting, rich in anecdotes and humorous or even tragic allusions. He is considered one of the world’s greatest after-dinner speakers and is remarkable for his ability to talk on any subject under the sun. His courses in Contemporary Drama, and Tennyson and Browning are the most popular courses in the university, and he is beloved by all.
My father, in his own small way, is somewhat like Phelps; he speaks French and English fluently with no betrayal of accent in either. During the War he delivered some beautiful four-minute speeches in both languages to the inhabitants of our little mill town in Maine. I believe I have inherited from him this gift.
Having observed Phelps closely, I felt that in my radio announcements, little anecdotes and entertaining facts about each tune would be of human interest. This idea was the keynote of Professor Phelps’ talks, and I felt it would be a good experiment.
The idea occurred to me that since we were at the Heigh-Ho Club, and the name was originally an old English greeting, a pleasant radio greeting would be, “Heigh-ho, Everybody!” So I adopted this and it has become synonymous with our music and has always been an introduction. In fact one music publisher upon seeing the effect it had on our vaudeville audiences engaged a famous song writer to compose a song called “Heigh-ho, Everybody, Heigh-Ho.”
Considering that I had never heard Lopez, Bernie or any of the great orchestra leaders who announce their own programs, the fact that I avoided the pitfalls and pleased even the severest radio critics in my announcements, gives me great happiness.
We played our numbers in groups beginning our program with a “signature.” Ben Bernie was one of the first to adopt this idea of a certain theme that should identify the orchestra. A person tuning in on a program of this sort would recognize the orchestra by this signature, even though there was no announcement, and it was a musical way of saying “Hello.”
I also knew from my theatrical experience that there was nothing more effective than a voice against music. So, without asking WABC if it were possible, I took the chance and always announced against musical background. The young man sent by WABC to the club to control the volume of our orchestra, soon saw what I was striving for, and regulated the volume of the orchestra so that when I stepped to the microphone to announce, the music did not overshadow my voice. I felt that voices were of a musical quality even in speech and knew that nothing sounded nicer against an orchestra than a voice telling something interesting.
Our signature, which has become inseparably associated with us, is a Yale college football song, very famous, entitled “March, March On Down The Field.” Several high schools and other organizations have for years adopted the melody for their own school songs, but originally it was the composition of a Yale graduate who wrote two other very famous Yale songs and whom I count today as one of my dearest friends. I chose this song because Dickerman had named us The Yale Collegians, and as a former leader of the Yale football band which had played this tune so many times in the bowl at New Haven, I felt it would be a fitting and spirited signature.
It is surprising the effect this composition has on our listeners. Many people say it is one of the most beautiful things we play and it has become even more beloved than before.
I evolved a routine as follows:
After playing one chorus with the boys, I step to the microphone and introduce us thusly: “Heigh-ho, everybody, this is Rudy Vallée, announcing and directing a program of dance music, which we begin with so-and-so, and so-and-so, and so-and-so.” I used announcing and directing as I reflected that in reality I was doing both.
If there are any interesting details about any of the three or four first tunes, I mention them. We play them, with myself and various of the other boys singing an occasional chorus. Always this first group is in the regular fox trot tempo, which is fairly swift moving. Our second group usually consists of one or more tunes of a very slow tempo; these are compositions that must be played slowly in order that the beauty of the lyrics not be lost, because they are tunes whose melody and lyrics cannot be properly rendered in the regular fox trot time.
Thus we have contrasted tempos and of course, as I have said in another chapter, all our tunes are contrasted in their keys.
Our third group usually contains what I term a novelette, such as “Nola,” “Japanese Sunset,” “Song of India,” in other words a purely instrumental tune that has no vocalizing and which by its nature is a contrast to the other popular types of tunes. This is the nearest we come to symphonized syncopation since we play this tune with introduction, modulations and all.
Then we continue with possibly one or more waltzes, possibly a tango, at least something of a slow moving nature. Next we go back to a group of three or four of the outstanding hits of some successful musical comedy; then again to some slow tunes, which are more or less characteristic of our style.
This characteristic, very slow fox trot which we seem to have been one of the pioneers in playing, was simply the result of a necessity that I had the courage to realize and carry into effect. The average orchestra leader, fearing that his dancers will not know what to do against such a slow tempo, ruins these numbers by playing them in regular tempo. But I wanted to play them really well, which meant playing them slowly.
I was extremely gratified to read in the newspapers that at the annual meeting of the Dancing Masters of America in Pittsburgh the prize step which they adopted for the coming year was termed, “The Rudy Vallée”. The particular feature of this step is, to quote the article, “a catchy bending of the knee which makes for grace and was inspired by the smooth, soft music peculiar to its namesake.”
So our daring was not in vain after all.
I can understand the refusal of some orchestra leaders to play our very slow tempo because I know that I have antagonized some people by playing it, especially the middle-aged and elderly couples who find it difficult to dance to anything but the regular fox trot and waltz. Young folks do practically the same steps to all dances and delight in inventing new ones when the tempo becomes difficult to follow.
I always planned our programs so that they had plenty of variation and contrast, with vocal choruses by myself and others in the band. When I first began with station WABC, I made all the announcements, including naming the station, the address of the Club, and our future program.
I can truthfully say that when I approached the microphone on my first night I had none of the fear or awe of it such as is supposed to terrify those who approach it for the first time. The reason for this, I suppose, was simply that I was not conscious of my audience and did not care what others might think of our work if I myself was satisfied, because I know that I am harder to please than the most cranky critics in my audience.
I believe it is only those who must have that personal animation, those appreciative of laughs, giggles, titters and murmurs that audiences supply, who find the complete silence of broadcasting and the dark metallic stare of a microphone screen uninspiring and nerve-wracking. I have never cared whether I was watched, or if anyone was listening to me or my voice; I play for the sheer love of playing, and am scarcely aware of an audience, since I am wrapped up in the rendition of the composition itself.
For that reason I am happiest when in a broadcasting studio with no audience, with no voices, nothing but that jolly little mike staring at us. Neither do I visualize the thousands listening. Maybe once in a great while I am conscious that a certain tune will please those shut-ins and sick ones who tell me they like that type of music. But, to me, broadcasting is the spice of life.
As I mentioned before, there is no more difficult thing than broadcasting, yet even in meeting its complicated and nerve-wracking demands I am most happy.
Sometimes I jump to the microphone with my horn still in my mouth, removing it just in time to begin singing a vocal chorus, and even while rendering this chorus have to glance at my watch, and compute the number of choruses I can still play before the station announcement, which must come every fifteen minutes. At the same time to give directions with my hands to the expectant boys as to what the routine will be. But, strange as it may seem, the more complicated our program, the happier I am.
Toward the end of our program I usually leave a minute and a half to say, “Heigh-ho, until the next time,” while the boys play “Down The Field.” The tune dies out just as the hour, or half-hour, comes to an end. To the boys it is a great relief and though I too, feel relieved when I know the broadcast has been well done, still I am very happy while it is taking place, because my heart and soul are in radio.

Read Chapter 8

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