Fridays with Rudy: Vagabond Dreams Come True, Ch. 18

In Chapter 18 of his 1930 memoir, Vagabond Dreams Come True, Rudy Vallée offers tales of his encounters with an arm of the music publishing industry that was a dying breed even then: The song plugger.

Chapter XVIII


DUE to the influx of theme songs and sound pictures a most interesting species of human being is fast disappearing from the musical world. I refer to the song plugger.
He is an individual with perhaps one of the most thankless jobs that anyone could have and a task that requires more cajolery, diplomacy and salesmanship combined with the ability to take more rebuffs than the proverbial insurance and book agent. From early morning until late at night his hours are spent among artists who might be the means of presenting one or more of his songs to the public.
The history of the success of a song is more complicated than that of a best seller in fiction. A successful song writer must be a keener psychologist, possibly, than any other artist.
In the first place there is the period to be considered. There are Mammy periods, Oriental song periods with subdivisions when Chinese, Japanese and Hindu songs are especially popular; Hawaiian periods; Dixie periods, closely allied to the Mammy periods; periods when the public seems ready for “nut” songs with the lyrics about Fords, bananas, ice cream, and so forth. But the public is always ready for a love song, especially a love song in waltz tempo.
Assuming that the song writer has written the correct song for the period, the next problem is to introduce it to a public spread not only over forty-eight states but over the entire world.
In the old days this tremendous task was accomplished first by vaudeville acts and traveling singers. Later, phonograph records became, with vaudeville, a successful medium. Today the radio as a means of introducing songs to the public is a thousand times more effective than either of those other two, considering that at some radio broadcasts the listening audience may number five or even ten million people. Nowadays a good song can almost be “made” by one or two broadcasts over the giant networks from coast to coast.
Once the song has become successful in America, it is purchased by foreign agents or individual publishers who in turn exploit it by radio and records. The triple hook-up of radio, records and vaudeville is responsible for the tremendous royalties paid to song writers today.
An outstanding example of this is “Sonny Boy” which in a period of a month and a half reached a sale, thanks to Al Jolson’s motion picture, of over one million sheet copies and several millions of records, which nets both the composers and the publishers a pretty penny indeed.
Thus it will be seen that the vaudeville song plugger, or publisher’s representative, who tries to persuade the acts to use his particular tunes in their routine, is practically unnecessary, as is the man whose business it was to take the recording heads out to luncheon and plead with these experts to record his tunes. Today if the orchestra leader can be persuaded to broadcast the tune to his audience of millions, it will, on its own merit go over in the various music stores, whereas the record companies are only two anxious to record the tunes for which there is a great sheet music demand.
Again, most of the vaudevillians have radios and hear for themselves just how wonderful a tune is, or get the effect of a broadcasting of this particular tune.
Then again, the motion sound picture with a reiteration of its theme song reaches almost as many as the radio, since there may be simultaneous showings of the same picture in almost every good sized city throughout the country for weeks.
The song plugger formerly included in his routine visits to the vaudeville artists’ dressing-rooms and the dance hall, where he attempted to persuade the orchestra leader to feature his tune. Often he himself would sing while he stayed there. When you heard a strange singer at a dance you could be pretty sure that he was probably a song plugger.

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Fridays with Rudy: Vagabond Dreams Come True, pt. 3

In Chapter Three of Rudy Vallée’s 1930 memoir, Vagabond Dreams Come True, we are, er, um, honored with a treatise on leading a band—specifically, on informing the band members of the next song and the key in which it is to be played.

Fascinating? Well, to a niche audience, perhaps. Our Mr. Vallée could be a bit obsessive, and I can’t imagine that the experience of being one of Rudy’s Connecticut Yankee was always a pleasant one. And I wonder about all the young women who carried such a torch for this popular crooner in 1930. One spin through Chapter 3 of his memoir surely put a damper on any ardor they felt for Rudy.

Chapter III


TRULY my problem as saxophonist and director of the Connecticut Yankees is a difficult one, in fact I really am busier than the proverbial one-eyed dog in a sausage shop. This will be more apparent if I explain my predicament in detail and then show you the system that I evolved as my only solution.
In the first place we have only eight men, including myself and there are only four of the instruments contributing a musical voice to the general ensemble, that is, the two violins and the two saxophones, of which I am one. Th rest constitute was is known in orchestra parlance as the “back row.” The “back row” is the rhythmic section consisting of piano, banjo, drums and string bass; these four contributing practically nothing but rhythm, except when the piano “cues in” to help the melody out.
Though the four voices (as I term the two violins and the two saxophones) always play at the same time, I only permit two of them to carry the melody simultaneously; usually the first violinist and I take the melody against the harmony supplied by the second violin and the tenor saxophone. The last two boys may each play a separate counter melody simultaneously, but they must be sure their obbligatos (which they usually improvise themselves) do not conflict at any point. Then on the next chorus I shift to obbligato, the tenor saxophone shifts to melody while the first violin stays on the melody, the second violinist and I contributing the harmony, being careful likewise not to let our respective harmonies conflict.
Now, quite obviously, if any one of those four instruments ceases to play, even for a few measures, a valuable voice is missing and its absence is usually noted by even those patrons engrossed in eating, or in talking as they dance. The feeling that something is wrong is instantly in the air.
So I demand of the boys that they play at all times with no “lay outs” and no rest choruses for anyone. That goes for myself, too.
This might seem very hard, but it really isn’t, when you consider that we play only for short periods and that six of us secure a rest about every third or fourth chorus when I turn my pianist loose for a chorus featuring the piano with the drums playing a soft rhythmic background. Even without this rest, it would not seem difficult to us because most of us have played many club jobs in our earlier days, where we did not drop the instruments or take them from our mouths for hours at a time.
The word “fullness” and “sustained tone” have been cardinal points in my direction of the boys. I abhor what I term “gaps,” that is empty spaces between the phrases of a song where the whole band seems to have gone out for a haircut or shave. It was some time before I conveyed to the boys just what I expected of them, that is, a fullness of tone giving the impression of twice the number of men, which is secured by the proper blowing and bowing on the part of the four voices with the proper rhythmic background.
That we have succeeded in this endeavor is shown very clearly by the surprised remarks of many people who, upon seeing the band for the first time, have asked me where the rest of the men were. Most of them have been laboring under the impression that we had twice as many players.
This effect of continuous, sustained tone is a beautiful one and easily achieved. But the value and importance of each individual in a small unit giving his best (and that with hardly a pause for breathing) to secure a richness of volume, is seldom realized.
The problem that confronted me was this: I must direct the band, that is, tell the boys what we were going to play and how we were going to play it, and yet play my sax.
I have told you that the style which we had adopted was to play only the choruses of each particular piece. To play more than three choruses of the same tune is to risk monotonous repetition and to bore our listeners. Therefore after two or three choruses, we go right into another tune, being careful to choose one of contrasting type and key; that is, if the tune we were first playing was one of smooth sustained notation, such as all half-notes and whole notes, and of a dreamy nature, I would consider while we were playing it what would be a good tune to go into,—obviously something of the staccato type, with many rhythmic accents. A tune that would sound broken up, and what we term “peppy,” would be an ideal contrast with the tune we were playing. The name of such a tune occurring to me, I must convey it and its key to the boys.

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Fridays with Rudy: Vagabond Dreams Come True, pt. 1

Rudy Vallée only began performing on the radio in 1928, so the idea of penning a memoir in 1930, at the ripe old age of 29, might well be viewed as premature.

But modesty was never Vallée’s strong suit, so it’s perhaps not surprising that he was already itching to begin telling his story.

Here’s Chapter 1 from Vagabond Dreams Come True—enjoy!



Were it not for their faith in
us, and their great love, we
would never have succeeded


IT SEEMS to me that everyone has given his or her theory as to just why I and the seven other boys work with me achieved such a sensational rise in what seemed to be such a short time. Since I am the pilot who guided the eight of us in our climb, I feel more qualified than any other person to speak; and, believing that I have, to some degree, the gift of analysis, I feel that my own theory is possibly more valuable to those who are really interested, than any of the other opinions that have been volunteered.

At this point, I want to make one thing very clear: I have myself written all that you will read here. I believe that I alone am capable of expressing myself on this particular subject. Although at this moment my schedule is one that keeps me on the jump from nine o’clock in the morning until four o’clock next morning—a nineteen-hour schedule that hardly permits of time to eat—I realize that this is my opportunity to really tell you something about our personalities, our early struggles and ambitions. I am beginning with zest and pleasure and only hope that you will find the result interesting.
Once more, let me repeat that this is my own sincere work.



IT SEEMS that I have been “natural news” ever since I came into the spotlight. I have been called everything from a romantic sheik to a punk from Maine with a set of megaphones and a dripping voice. I have been supposed to have received orchids and bouquets during my theatre appearances. Furthermore I am supposed to have ignored these trophies and to have caused all flapperdom to become stirred as it has never been stirred before. I have been called a menace (in a humorous way of course). And one article in particular gave me quite a kick when it referred to me as the Vallée peril, which made me feel like the general of an invading army. However I realize that this is really an absurdity, for my appearance in person should remove whatever worry any husband might have over me.
But even discounting humorous exaggeration, it is evident that many people are sincerely interested in me and in my Connecticut Yankees, and I think that our admirers might welcome an authentic account of our career.
The eight of us met on a Monday afternoon in January, 1928.
I had graduated from Yale in June, 1927, and had followed my graduation with a second summer tour in vaudeville with the Yale Collegians, not as leader but as one of the three saxophonists.
The fall of 1927 found me in Boston, Massachusetts leading a society orchestra with which I had once played in Maine. But Boston did not keep me busy enough, opportunity seemed limited and these two facts, combined with sentimental reasons, caused me to transfer to New York City. The only hope I had of work was the practical assurance of at least one job a week with the orchestras that Vincent Lopez was sending out to various banquets, large meetings and fraternity affairs.
I might explain something which, I find, is not understood at all by the average layman. The big orchestra leaders, such as Whiteman, Lopez, Bernie, Olsen and the rest, find that their own individual bands are the means of bringing a great deal more work than can be performed under their personal leadership. It is quite obvious that, when people desire to give an affair at which they require a dance orchestra, one of the above names usually comes to their minds; and after phoning the office they find, of course, that the personal outfit of Paul Whiteman is either on tour or at some place where they play nightly. They are told, however, that the office supplies replicas of the original band called units and that these units may vary in size from three pieces to one hundred, at varying prices, depending upon whether there are star men in the outfit or just ordinary talent.
Thus springs up what is known as the Whiteman office, the Lopez office, the Bernie office, and this work to which they cater is called “outside” or “club” work. This work is sporadic, to be sure; that is, the work is seasonal, depending upon the seasons when debutantes come out, when marriages take place, when fraternal orders celebrate, when students are home for vacation, and when fraternities give their dances, during the football season. Thus, it is either feast or famine. However, most of the representative offices keep a certain number of men employed every week, and the advantage of club work is that sometimes three nights of hard club work pays more than seven nights of steady work. A club job is very hard while it lasts but it pays excellently, since the men usually play steadily from ten in the evening until the wee hours of the morning.

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