Fridays with Rudy: Vagabond Dreams Come True, Ch. 15

In Chapter 15 of his 1930 memoir, Vagabond Dreams Come True, Rudy Vallée pays homage to the man who served as his saxophone mentor and muse, Rudy Wiedoeft.

Chapter XV


Probably most people connect my name with the saxophone, but only a few know that all my life I have had a great desire to play some sort of a musical instrument. I went from drums to clarinet, to trumpet, to saxophone.
The clarinet I studied faithfully for ten weeks and then was forced to neglect it, due to a very hard job in a sawmill during the summer vacation. When I think of how close I came to losing my fingers I thank my lucky stars that I finished that summer’s work without receiving so much as a scratch from a saw. Many times when I worked on the “edger,” the saw teeth striking a knot in the board would throw it back so that the palm of my hand just missed the teeth.
I took up the study of the trumpet while working back stage with a stock company, and then rented a saxophone when I began my senior year in school. The similarity between saxophone and clarinet made it possible for me to play a limited range of notes on the saxophone. The horn that I had was called a C Melody, being pitched in C. I could read song sheets, the violin parts, without any transposition. I used to play at night with several acquaintances who gathered in a bowling alley where near beer was served, and go canoeing with a banjo player or a violinist. Always I played for my own amusement and for those who cared to listen. Finally I was engaged by a small dance orchestra playing two nights a week in a Pythian Temple Building. This led to more engagements in northern Maine with what had been Maine’s most famous dance orchestra, Welch’s Novelty Orchestra.
By that time I had begun to think I was quite a saxophonist; the boys in that band, and in fact every band I played with, made so much of me that I was very pleased with my progress.
I had read somewhere, possibly in a Victor catalogue, about a Victor record that Joseph C. Smith and his orchestra had played called “Caravan.” This was the composition of a young man, a saxophonist by the name of Rudy Wiedoeft, who, the article said, dropped in when Smith was recording the number and played a chorus of variations which were truly marvelous. Just before I had left for the summer engagement in northern Maine I had listened to a record that this young man had made with another saxophonist and two pianos (these four called themselves the Wiedoeft-Wadsworth Quartet). On this record, called “The Crocodile,” the saxophones had employed a peculiar form of tongueing known as “slap tongue” because it gives forth from the bell a sound very much akin to that produced by two boards being slapped together. I noticed that this always intrigued the layman even as it did me. After experimenting a little bit with the mouthpiece and reed, I stumbled onto this effect, and it stood me in great stead in those early days, and brought a lot of attention to my playing, as many saxophonists are to able to do it.
Then in the fall when I returned from the summer engagement, the Victor Company released the first solo played by Rudy Wiedoeft on the same type of instrument that I used, the C Melody. Both numbers were his own compositions and one of them is his pièce de résistance, that one that he is always associated with, namely “Saxophobia.” They are masterpieces even today, and I truthfully believe no one could record them in quite the way Wiedoeft did. Although Wiedoeft’s beautiful tone was apparent in “The Crocodile” it remained for this wonderful record of “Valse Erica” and “Saxophobia” to show me the great possibilities of the saxophone as a concert solo instrument.
I wrote Wiedoeft, asking him a few technical questions. The weeks dragged by but no reply came, so I wrote a second, and a third, and a fourth, and so on until I had written eight letters. I made up my mind that if persistence counted for anything. I would hear from him, but I did not realize that I was writing to perhaps the busiest man in New York City. Between phonograph records, solo appearances, and a thousand and one pressing engagements, Rudy Wiedoeft had no time for answering fan mail. Then again, Rudy Wiedoeft had no time for answering fan mail. Then again, Rudy dislikes letter writing, not being of a particularly literary turn of mind. I did not hear from him until I came down with acute appendicitis in December, 1920. This time, noting that I was sick and in the hospital, he answered my letter, replying to my questions in full.
I had begun the study of the saxophone with a man who had had many years’ experience with the instrument. This man decried the use of “slap tongue” as being “illegitimate,” and perhaps it was pity for my helplessness in the hospital combined with irritation at the criticism of “slap tongue” by this instructor that made Wiedoeft reply. Anyway, he censured my instructor roundly for daring to criticize him, inviting him to come to New York City where, as he said, the phonograph business was open, and any one of the phonograph companies would welcome him with open arms if he were as good a saxophonist as he was a critic. Wiedoeft’s final point impressed me very strongly. He said that anything is legitimate so long as it produces the goods. I never quite forgot that statement, and although it is not actually or completely true, it comes pretty near being.

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Fridays with Rudy: Vagabond Dreams Come True, Ch. 14

In Chapter 14 of his 1930 memoir, Vagabond Dreams Come True, Rudy Vallée offers his opinions on jazz—both the music and the term, the latter of which he felt strongly was too often misused. He also offers some rather questionable history lessons on the origins of jazz.

Chapter XIV


PAUL WHITEMAN titled his book with this much abused term.
Personally, I would not have dared to have done likewise because I do not believe that I sufficiently understand what the term means to talk about it; and I have found, upon questioning those who use the word frequently and seemingly with understanding, that in reality they know nothing at all specific as to its meaning.
To some it is “peppy” music, to others a lot of noise, and to still others it is the waving of instruments in the air. I have found no two people who give the same definition of the word.
The real propagators of the word were a group of men in New York, who, back in 1918 and 1919, banded together and called themselves the Dixieland Jazz Band. The outstanding characteristic of their records, as I recall “The Ostrich Walk” was that there was no distinguishable melody; every man seemed to be striking out for himself, playing a part of his own and only take care that it did not conflict with the general harmony. These men were the first to use the term, and through their success the word came into wide-spread popularity.
But today “jazz” is applied to almost any form of orchestra or band music which is not strictly classical, and this is a grave error, inasmuch as dance music may be just as sweet and beautiful as true classical music. Therefore I believe it is absolutely incorrect to use the word so indiscriminately.
The unusual feature of my own orchestra is a clearly defined melody at all times, therefore I do not see how we could rightly be characterized as a “jazz” band; and I would not term our music “jazz,” even though I occasionally “laugh” on the saxophone and others in the band play what we term “blue” notes and unusual rhythms.
Whenever possible I correct any publicity that would style our little group of eight a “jazz” band, or me a “jazz” band leader.
“Blue” notes are simply an exaggerated sliding up and down of the pitch of the note and this is studied in legitimate music, just as arpeggios, rhythms, chromatic runs and accents are all studied and used in legitimate music and in the highest of classical music.
Truly, I have no definite conception of what “jazz” is, but I believe that the term should be applied, in view of the fact that such music came up from the South, to the weird orchestral efforts of various colored bands up in Harlem, the Negro section of New York City. These bands have a style all their own, and at times it seems as though pandemonium had broken loose. Most of the time there is no distinguishable melody; in fact even though they are playing a popular tune with a definite melody, it is absolutely impossible for even a musical ear to tell the name of the piece.
It was the similar style of colored musicians in the South (New Orleans to be exact), that first prompted this group of white men, to adopt that type of music and style themselves the Dixieland Jazz Band.
But the public uses many words the meanings of which are very vague and doubtful, and a crusade on my part to attempt to show that the word is incorrectly used in the majority of cases, where the instrumentalist is simply employing legitimate and basic rudiments of music, would be absurd. A little reflection on the part of most anyone who thinks at all will show that the word “jazz” nine times out of ten is misapplied.
Although Whiteman’s music is really symphonized syncopation, occasionally he permits his brass team to play in this Negro style and since he is unquestionably the king of dance orchestra leaders, he is rightly termed “The Jazz King.”

Read Chapter 15

Fridays with Rudy: Vagabond Dreams Come True, Ch. 13

In Chapter 13 of his 1930 memoir, Vagabond Dreams Come True, Rudy Vallée addresses a question that he claimed occasionally came up: Was his experience in college responsible for his success? As a Yale man, Rudy had strongly felt opinions on the topic, and he’s not shy about sharing them.

Chapter XIII

Did College Help Me?

I HAVE occasionally been asked whether or not I thought that my college training was responsible for my success.
Like most questions I believe that is a difficult one to answer with a single negative or affirmative since it requires much discussion and explanation.
There has always been animosity on the part of many people who have attended a university toward those who have. This is probably subconsciously prompted by envy and regret as there are very few who will not admit that if they had the opportunity they would go to college.
It is true that in the past the requirements for entering college, for remaining within its walls, and for securing a degree were not as exacting as they are today. There were not so many applications for admission as the average college receives today, and there was a looseness about the times that was felt n the classrooms and on the campus.
But today the average college can accommodate only one third of the men who apply for admission each fall. Therefore the board of admission and the faculty feel that in justice to the thousands who are turned down, those admitted should give the best in them in an effort to utilize all of the wonderful advantages that the college affords them. In other words, among those refused admission are many who perhaps would give anything to have been admitted and who would work very hard, and for the more fortunate ones who are safely in to rest on their oars and become, as it were, slackers, is an injustice to these others.
I do not know a great deal about the requirements of other colleges but I do know that to enter, stay within and graduate from Yale requires work, hard work and plenty of it. Neither money, family prestige nor athletic ability will keep a man in Yale University; and I have seen some of the biggest athletes severely penalized for misdemeanors that seemed comparatively slight. In fact, the faculty at New Haven has just as high a regard for the fifty percent of the men who are working their way through as they have for the remainder.
It is an absolute impossibility for a young man to remain for the four years of a college course within this university (and I firmly believe such is the case in nearly all of our other American universities) without being tremendously affected by his classroom and social contacts. It is unreasonable to suppose that one could associate with the eager, fresh and talented minds of students and the cultured, highly specialized minds of the faculty without receiving some sort of impression. It is impossible to cheat in the classroom and it is impossible to pass most of the courses without reading and study.
Therefore it is an unavoidable fact that those who march in cap and gown at Commencement have, perhaps in spite of themselves, received a great deal from their college life.

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Fridays with Rudy: Vagabond Dreams Come True, Ch. 10

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.)

Chapter X


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!

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Fridays with Rudy: Vagabond Dreams Come True, Ch. 9

In Chapter Nine of Rudy Vallée’s 1930 memoir, Vagabond Dreams Come True, Rudy tells us about the voluminous amounts of fan he received and assures the reader that the rumor that the correspondence he receives comes mostly from flappers is decidedly untrue.

Chapter IX

My Fan Mail

EXAGGERATION is, I suppose, the life and spirit of publicity. But being a very conscientious New England Yankee, born to state facts as they are, I have chafed under the ballyhoo of many a write-up. One point in particular is a sore spot to me: any mention, however finished or crude, of my fan mail irritates me. There is nothing quite so sacred or quite so wonderful as the tribute of an admirer to the one who receives it and to publicly make mention of this seems to me as brazen and as unpolished as to open another person’s mail.
A periodical which carried my life story, “ghost written” by a girl writer, boasted that I received 20,000 letters a day. Nothing could be more absurd and untrue, and this would be very apparent to anyone who would stop to consider the improbability of such a thing.
This paper went on to state, in the little synopsis preceding the story itself each day, that many of these letters were proposals.
As I take stock of myself and try to imagine how others might consider me as being eligible as a husband, I personally fail to see why I should receive many, if any proposals at all. But there is no accounting for taste, and I suppose that I might seriously appeal to some as a husband.
This is not mock modesty for remember I am well aware of the fact that my appeal is a personality expressed in a voice, and in the average marriage the physical side is of much greater importance than either the mental aspect or personality. People rarely propose to something they have not seen.
Had I been able to censor this “ghost written” story, which somehow got beyond my control, I would never have permitted any mention of letters or their contents as I feel very much like a Father Confessor who forgets immediately (as far as other people are concerned) what is told him, and every letter I receive, even those that criticize, condemn or deride me, I hold as most sacred, and worthy of my attention and thought.
I am very glad that I do not receive 20,000 letters or even 500 letters a day, because quite obviously I would never be able to read all of them, as I do now. Although I read fast it sometimes consumes three hours of my day only to read my daily mail, let along the extra time it takes to answer it.
I am told by the motion picture studio people that my first picture, even if a failure, will bring me so much mail that I will not able to read it personally. And I suppose if all the Fleischmann letters were turned over to me, I would not be able to ready all of my radio fan mail. This is even more unfortunate, as the radio letters I receive help me immeasurably in building my radio program.
However, those I may engage to read the letters, should the number of them ever get away from me, will be individuals who know my likes and dislikes and will understand how to give me a consensus of opinion of the daily batch of letters, as I feel it is most essential and important that I keep a very close and sensitive finger upon the pulse of those who are interested in my efforts.
My very first fan letters, which came as a result of our first broadcasts in February, 1928, were a revelation and an inspiration to me. My association with the radio had been very meagre indeed and I did not know and had never considered that people took the pains to express their appreciation of a radio program by letter.
To most people letter-writing is a most disagreeable and unwelcome task; there seems to be something irksome and difficult about securing writing materials, and sitting down and expressing certain thoughts on paper. This is readily understandable when one considers the steps involved in writing a letter.
First, it is necessary to be in the mood to write. It is obviously quite impossible to write a letter when one is exhausted or irritated.

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