Snapshot in Prose: the popular song

This week’s Snapshot in Prose doesn’t capture a particular performer at certain time in his or her career, as is usual. Instead, it captures a perennial keystone of popular culture—the hit song—and examines, via the insights and opinions of performers and other entertainment professionals of the day, what set one song apart from another—in short, what makes a song popular. We thought it’d be interesting to see what the likes of Ethel Merman and Bing Crosby had to say on the topic back in 1935, and how salient their insights might be today. Read on, and see what you think.

HAVE you ever tried to write a song? Are you one of the millions of amateur tunesmiths who haven’t been able to get anywhere in Tin Pan Alley? If you are (and who isn’t?) here are some hot tips from the boys and girls who write ’em, sing ’em, play ’em publish ’em.
I think the answer to ‘What Makes a Popular Song Popular?’ can be found in my own astonishment and pleasure over the success of one of my first tunes, Body and Soul,” said Johnny Green, youthful pianist-composer-maestro of the Columbia Broadcasting System.
Johnny told us: “Nobody was ever as surprised as myself when it caught on fire in Tin-Pan Alley. Now, I had written that tune because I wanted to write it. It had been haunting me, it was as near an inspiration as any tune could be, but I had secretly thought the melody was much too complicated and involved to find favor with the general public.
“After that song was put over in a big way I fought for my style of composing tooth and nail, insisting that not even a measure should be changed but it took the enthusiasm of the public to convince me that I was on the right track. The moral, boys and girls, is this: The real hit tunes are probably the ones that the composers couldn’t help writing.”
On the other hand, Kate Smith, who has popularized many ditties (including When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain, remember?) believes that trying to figure out the exact ingredients of a successful song is like trying to answer the question, “how high is up?”
“The moods and tendencies of the public changes like a chameleon,” Kate believes. “Sometimes they feel ironic about romance; sometimes sentimental; sometimes wistful. Incidentally, the tune which catches the prevalent sentiment is likely to start a new trend in popular songs. There will be lots of others like it, once it has caught fire but probably none of them will find favor with the public like the first one. Remember how The Last Round-Up started an avalanche of hill-billy tunes?”
Conrad Thibault, baritone singing star of the Showboat and many other big air programs feels that the thing that makes a song popular is a good message, both in lyrics and music, played and delivered in such a manner that even a person who has no musical training at all can understand it.
As master of ceremonies of one of the biggest Amateur Night broadcasts in all radio, we were sure that Ray Perkins would have reached some interesting conclusions. Ray, you know, is one of those old gong ringers who goes into action whenever the amateur talent and their renditions get too painful.
“A hit tune,” Ray informs us, “is a song that no one can murder . . . not even an amateur! It has nine lives . . . like a cat!” And with this astute observation Ray went off in search of bigger and louder gongs.
Jack Mills, head of Mills Music, has published hundreds of big song hits during the past fifteen years. Among the songs which he rightly predicted would become popular, are Dinah, Star Dust, Moonglow, Haunting Me and I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby.
From the publisher’s point of view there are four requisites for songs hoping to find a welcome at Mills Music. Jack enumerates them, as follows:

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Snapshot in Prose: West, Vallée, & Crosby

In this week’s Snapshot in Prose, we visit not just one performer, but three: Mae West, Rudy Vallée, and Bing Crosby. It’s interesting to see what the attitudes toward these performers were in 1935. Pipe-smoking, sweater-wearing Bing Crosby as a “futuristic painter”? Who knew?

Personalities makes hits!

Somewhere a voice is singing. A tenor, slightly off-key, is yodeling from the confines of his morning bath. Love in Bloom is being watered by splashes from the shower and is interrupted only when our singer asks for a towel.
     Somewhere a voice is humming. A cracked soprano voice is coming from the cabinet files and trying to render Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries. To her fellow workers that voice is making Life a Bowl of Lemons.
     Somewhere a youth is whistling. He was coasting down the street on a bike and averring I’d Like to Spend One Hour with You.
     Who is responsible for the bathtub tenor? Who inspired the filing clerk, who put the song into the heart of our bicycle boy?
     Not just the songwriters, but the first one who injected into the songs enough of his personality and individuality to make the tunes stay in one’s memory. The bathtub singer is unconsciously imitating Bing Crosby, the filing cleark is secretly understudying Ethel Merman, while the boy on the bike is an embryo Eddie Cantor.
     Lucky is the songwriter who has an ace performer to “introduce” a song. An introduction in this case means a lifetime acquaintance; it means that like love another hit is sweeping the country!
     Who, for example, can take a song and make it a sensation quicker than Come-Up’n-See-Me-Sometime West? The lady of the curves may not have a soprano like Tetrazzini yet her aria, My Old Flame, or Troubled Waters, found more favor than Tettrazini’s Bell Song from “Lakme.”
     For this West, where men are men who fall in love with her and women do their best to imitate her, has as much sex appeal in her voice as she has in her body. Close your eyes and picture a scene as Mae sings you her songs.
     The humor of it, the meaning of it all is in her voice, in her insinuating drawl, in her half-closed eyes. It lies in the none too subtle movement of her hips. For West personifies what little children of my day used to call Sex. Her singing is frankly designed to appeal to the physical senses. Her voice conveys naughty meanings and we understand, laugh at it, and eat it up.
     If West can’t help you throw off you inhibitions, no one can. Her songs, you will notice, bear titles in the manner in which Mae herself talks: I Like A Man Who Takes His Time, He’s A Ban Man But He Loves Me So Good, How’m I Doin’? Mae is doing very well, thank you, so well that we sing her songs to see if we can’t do a little better ourselves!
     Why has practically every song Rudy Vallee introduced gone into the hit class? The answer is easy. Vallee gave the public something new. He coined the word “crooner” for us and then said it didn’t apply to him—but that was after his style was getting imitators.
     Our ears, attuned to the none too gentle voices of blues singers, were duly grateful. We found we could take the cotton out of them and still not have them jarred. Here was a suave, young man; casual, soft and gentlemanly in his singing.
     Poise and culture lay behind the tones. He sometimes sang more slowly than his orchestra—sometimes more quickly—but we knew he would come out right in the end and we liked this new rhythm.
     To Bing Crosby goes the honor of having more men in showers trying to sing like him than any other singer in the country. Walk along the corridors of your apartment house any morning at seven-thirty (Sundays 9 to 12). There’ll be dozens of boo-boo-boo-boos accompanying the splashing.
     Bing Crosby is to song what our futuristic painters are to art. Bing is a 1935 pleader. Take me, he says, or to hell with you. It’s all very casual and sophisticated.
     It it remarkable, isn’t it, how these men and women have managed to convey so much of their personalities to their voices and how this personality made hits emerge from Tin-Pan-Alley? The people who make some darned tune run around in our heads are the little tin gods of the songwriters. What shall we do with them—kiss ’em or kill ’em?

Personalities makes hits!