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.
SONGS AND SONG WRITING
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 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 Chapter Ten of Rudy Vallée’s 1930 memoir, Vagabond Dreams Come True, Rudy relates tales of a ten-week tour that covered a half-dozen vaudeville theatres scattered across New York City, in every borough save Staten Island. Rudy and his band even played the very top theatre in all of vaudeville, the Palace.
The band’s radio audience turned out in droves to see them do their stuff in person, and Rudy could tell the tour was a big success, thanks to what he describes as “the telepathic interchange of appreciation with which the air [became] charged.” (We know, we know—it had us scratching our heads, too.)
AS I REVIEWED in my mind all the letters that had come to me, common sense told me we had to show ourselves, since nearly every letter expressed a curiosity as to what I could be like. My odd name, which might be either French, Spanish or Italian, and my speech, which was very typical of the people up in Maine, left them wondering whether I was fish or fowl, while an occasional rendition of “Me Queres” in Spanish added to their confusion. And then again I realized that many of the little novelties we had worked up showing the various personalities of the band, would make good vaudeville material. So when a friend of mine, Sammy Smith, sought to bring the booking agent of the Palace Theatre to the Heigh-Ho Club to hear us, I looked forward to the audition with the greatest of hopes. Many times everything was set; then something would take the booker away at the last moment, and it seemed as though he would never be able to listen to us.
While this was still in the air I read in the monthly magazine of my fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, that Lawrence Schwab, the first half of the great musical comedy producing team, Schwab and Mandel, was a fraternity brother of mine, that he had struggled for recognition as a boy and now was perhaps America’s foremost producer of intimate musical comedies, and that in “Good News,” that latest Schwab and Mandel effort, they had used George Olsen. Olsen, however, was in Ziegfeld’s “Whoopee” and would not be available should they desire his services in the near future, so I approached Mr. Schwab, hoping to convince him that we might be useful in one of his future musical comedies. I told him that I did not wish to presume on our being fraternity brothers, but I did feel that we had something different to offer which, spotted in one of his musical comedies, might prove of value to him.
I brought my big scrap book but he smilingly told me that he had no time to glance through it. I then asked him if he had a radio and he again smiled and replied that of course he had. I left him my radio schedules and asked him to tune in some evening since I felt that even over the air he might be impressed. I invited him to the Heigh-Ho Club some night after the show for I felt that we could sell ourselves to him. But we never heard from him.
He is a very busy man which accounts, I suppose, for his failure to hear us or see us. I suppose everything happens for the best because had he liked our work and seen our possibilities, he probably could have signed us up for a relatively small salary, because although I had an idea that we were popular, I had no conception of our drawing power in a theatre, which power was amply demonstrated during the weeks of vaudeville and Paramount work following our opening at the 81st Street Theatre. A friend of ours named Charles Bayha, believing that we had great theatrical possibilities, took me to the owner of a theatrical publication who in turn arranged an audition before Earl Carroll at the Heigh-Ho Club. I was ill at the time, and could not show the band off to the best advantage.
The Keith booker came eventually to the Heigh-Ho Club for dinner with several Keith managers from the Middle West, and although he himself was impressed it was really the enthusiasm of the other men that convinced him that we should be given a try-out for vaudeville work. The Keith publicity department began playing up our radio publicity and the stage technicians operated in every way to give us a beautiful set. It was decided that instead of opening cold at the Palace we should have our première at the 81st Street Theatre, at 81st Street and Broadway. This was a small neighborhood house in a very nice, respectable neighborhood where it was felt that our popularity was well established.
One theatrical paper described our opening as “an explosion in the theatrical world,” and I guess it was, because we broke all records there both for attendance and for cordiality of reception, and we were held over from the end of one week to the first of the next week which had never been done before in the history of the house. Theatrical critics did not know what to make of it. We appeared against a black and silver stage setting, wearing morning suits, just eight men down close to the footlights. On the opening strains of “Down the Field” the house went mad, and after our opening number, as I stepped forward to say “Heigh-Ho, Everybody,” my greeting was received with deafening applause, and at the beginning of every number there was a tremendous outburst of handclapping. I was astounded by the power of radio!
In Chapter Eight of Rudy Vallée’s 1930 memoir, Vagabond Dreams Come True, Rudy finally takes a break from pontificating about his theories of dance orchestra stewardship and relates tales of the early days of his band of eight in New York City.
Success—But Not Over Night
OUR first broadcast from The Heigh-Ho in February, 1928, brought about twelve letters.
WABC was a small station, with radius confined to New York but it was a station of beautiful quality and power and has since become the key station of the gigantic Columbia Broadcasting System.
None of our write-ups has ever given credit where it belonged; even at the risk of injuring feelings I must pay due tribute and express my gratitude to stations WABC and WOR and WMCA which were responsible for the tremendous outburst we received February, 1929, at Keith’s 81st Street Theatre in New York City. When we began at station WABC, our band was only a small speck on New York’s horizon. But the enthusiasm which my surprised eyes read in those first letters affected me like magic. Still, the full realization of our powers did not dawn on me until about a month of broadcasting had elapsed.
Station WABC had a schedule that was far from full and they needed us to fill three or four gaps a week, sometimes for half an hour, sometimes an hour. At first we had a definite schedule, then it would vary and at any moment during the evening we might expect a call from the studio to jump into the breach when some artist had failed to appear.
To make my programs more co-ordinated, like a well-oiled machine, I realized that each man must know exactly what was going to happen. Here, more than ever, we were handicapped because obviously the directions could not be spoken and since I was playing the saxophone I was not free to indicate the routine by pantomime. So I conceived the idea of giving each man a typewritten program of the numbers.
Since we were on the air as often as four or five times a week I realized too that every program must be different from the others, as much as possible, with repeats only when the number was very popular and frequently requested. I secured a hectograph, or duplicating machine, and a typewriter, and in my own home-made fashion, with two fingers, typed out the programs, staying in to do so while the boys went out to eat between dinner and supper sessions.
Sometimes I spend as much as one hour just deciding which would be the best tunes to play, typing out the program and duplicating seven or eight copies of it. But I found that my efforts were well reward by a much smoother program.
The boys often wondered why I was so exacting and apparently unreasonable in my demands that every program be well-nigh perfect. If a mistake was unavoidable, I said nothing, but if the offender was day-dreaming, stupid, or heedless, the resulting error was brought to his attention immediately after the broadcast, and if it was really noticeable he would probably hear about it the rest of the evening.
But today I think the boys appreciate what my high ideals have brought us. I read the fan mail; they did not, although I invited them to do so.
I began to see what was happening.
One of my boys suggested that we were on the air too many times a week, but he did not see my theory which was this: I believed that by being on the air as often as four or five times a week, which is unusual in radio circles, eventually nearly every radio fan would stumble across us when moving the dials, and that our odd quality of tone and style would hold their attention, and that by having each program completely varied and different, carefully chosen and rendered, we would not become monotonous if one listened in every time we were on. Our terrific success has shown my conclusions to be completely justified. Our fan mail increased daily and my letters, which nearly all complimented us in superlative terms, bore witness to the fact there was something in the nature of our music that was different and that held the attention.
The speck on the horizon had begun to loom larger.
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.
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.
In Chapter Six of Rudy Vallée’s 1930 memoir, Vagabond Dreams Come True, Rudy continues his tutelage on organizing and leading a dance orchestra in the 1930s (we can’t help but wonder how many of Rudy’s “lessons” would still apply today).
Rudy discusses the role showmanship, and especially clowning, plays in a successful orchestra’s performance. And it’s interesting to note from Rudy’s remarks that, even in 1930, most fans attending a live show by their favorite performers made it a practice to request the orchestra’s most popular hits. We wonder if they held up cigarette lighters when requesting an encore at show’s end?
P.S. If you read till the end, you’ll find a streaming recording of one of the songs Rudy discusses in this chapter, “You’ll Do It Someday, So Why Not Now?” (He cleans up the title a little in the book, calling it “You’ll Love Me Someday, So Why Not Now?”, but he’s not fooling us.)
PAGING MR. BARNUM
Closely indentified with showmanship, in fact practically part of showmanship (and vice versa) is what the professional terms “hokum”; that is, something to amuse, to attract the eye and to tickle the sense of humor. Very few dance orchestras really use hokum at all, or at least to any extent, and most of those that do use it put it in either between dances or at intermission.
A few, however, were wise enough to realize that as the couples dance around there is very little to occupy their minds unless they are engaged in conversation. Usually I find that the fellow and girl do not converse as they dance; rather does the eye seek something to engage its attention. Of course one may watch the other couples, or those on the side-lines, or the orchestra.
I firmly believe that the dance orchestra will never be replaced by any form of mechanical music, regardless of how lifelike the mechanical orchestra may be; and the reason is not hard to find. The dancers want to watch the music being made and in turn enjoy being watched by the producers of the music. Put several couples in a room with a large orthophonic phonograph and see how quickly they become tired of dancing. Unless it is absolutely impossible to secure a dance orchestra composed of human beings, a crowd will not be content to dance to mechanical forms of music.
That is where hokum comes in. The band that can put on little skits and comedy numbers with props and apparatus while the crowd is dancing has a tremendous edge on dance orchestras that simply produce beautiful, rhythmic music. Such an orchestra may rightly be termed an entertaining orchestra because they engage the eye while they entice the feet to dance and soothe the mind with music.
After the success of our first comedy number I saw that we had the ingredients for a “hokum” band as well as a “sweet” band, and proceed to develop this side of our work.
My little violinist, De Vorzon, is a sort of buffoon. He has a personality that bubbles over and expresses itself in a dozen and one crazy antics and ideas, and as we play up to each other in our comedy numbers he reacts upon me and makes me quite a different individual for the moment.
Then my drummer, Toland, with his extreme size and happy-go-lucky personality, and Miller, my tenor sax, who has a mania for making almost as faces as Lon Chaney, have help make many a comedy number extremely laughable.
The germ of the idea is often mine and the subsequent outline I usually develop, but it is the little extemporaneous bits that the boys themselves think of, that top off or complete the comedy sketches which we present even while the crowd is dancing.
Our first comedy number was a tune which I had been playing for several years. It was an old college tune which had only been played by two bands, our own and the orchestra directed by the boy who wrote the tune. Years before I heard it with each word and or line capable of illustration in pantomime in songs at dances.
The first tune which gave me this idea was a number from one of the early editions of the “Scandals” called “The Gold Diggers.” In this number the word “dig” was illustrated by pantomime digging; the word “swim” by the movement of swimming; “Fifth Avenue” by five fingers of the hand held upright, etc.
Gestures done by one man alone are hardly noticed, but when done by the front line of the band in perfect unison they hold the audience quite spellbound, and it was nothing unusual for the crowd to stop dancing and gather around us during the course of such a chorus.