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.
We’re of the opinion that no performer’s appeal has dropped as much over time as Al Jolson‘s.
By that we mean, given what a huge star he once was, it’s intriguing how dated and, well, odd he sounds to many people today.
Not that any other performers who became stars in the first three decades of the 20th century are moving many records (or mp3s) these days, but Jolson, to our ears, stands nearly alone among the stars of that era as a not terribly easily acquired taste for 21st century listeners.
This profile, first published in 1934, reviews Jolson’s rise from a hardscrabble childhood to unparalleled stardom. Give it a read, and see if you’re won over. And when you reach the end, we’ve included a pair of Jolson recordings for your consideration. “Sonny Boy,” especially, is Al at his most … emotive.
“MAM-MY! Mam-my!” boomed the great, heart-to-heart voice of Al Jolson, and the whole world shouted, “Here I is!”
With storms of wild applause, vast audiences filled the pockets with their idol, who had grown up from hungry, little Asa Yoelson, to overflowing with millions of dollars.
Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, on May 26th, 1886, Asa soon was taught the chants and songs of the Hebrew religion that he might become the seventh in a direct line of Yoelson cantors.
While he was still a small child, the family came to America. They settled in Washington, D. C., where the father became cantor in a synagogue.
Now that the little fellow’s tummy was gratefully full, he suffered the pangs of another hunger. It was for high adventure, a restless craving for romance.
He no longer wanted to be a cantor, but the grandeur and throbbing sorrow in the music of his people had already left their indelible beauty in his voice.
To escape the boredom of his childhood, Asa ran away. He rode to New York in a freight train to join his brother. Falling asleep on a park bench, the little youngster awoke to find that someone had stolen his shoes. His brother sent him home.
Next, eager for excitement, Asa ran away with a circus. Discovered, the manager said he was too young. He sent him right back to Washington.
Undaunted, the exuberant runaway wandered off to the army camp of a regiment in the Spanish-American War. The attractive, brown-eyed lad instantly won the friendship of the soliders. They enjoyed his rare ability as an entertainer, and adopted him as their mascot. However, they urged him to return to his parents.
His last runaway was with a burlesque show, when again he was promptly sent home.
Asa had become resigned to wait in Washington until he owned his first pair of long pants. With the long pants, he put on a new name, Al Jolson. The combination seems to have brought him good luck. He found work as a super in “Children of the Ghetto,” at the Herald Square Theatre, New York.
A little later Al joined his brother, and a friend named Palmer, in a vaudeville act. There followed years of one-night stands, traveling from coast to coast. He knew nights of near-despair, and days of hunger.
Al had to hunt for cheap rooms, and often he found them miserably cold or stiflingly hot. Loneliness and dreadful food were his frequent lot.
Following the San Francisco earthquake and fire in 1906, he got a job in a Barbary Coast café. Here, Jolson created his own informal style of entertaining. Later, as the greatest box-office attraction on the American stage, he developed it into a real art. In this achievement, he stands supreme among the entertainers of our time.
To make himself heard over the din of the city’s reconstuction, the gay troubadour stood on the piano near the audience, he got down on his knees for “sob” songs, and carried his listeners into a “colored” heaven.
He was wearing black-face. To an unnamed, old negro dresser in a New York theatore goes the credit for Al’s make-up.
“Mister Jolson, why don’t yo’ try singin’ yo’ songs blacked up?” the wise old fellow had said to Al.
In Chapter 9 of In Your Hat, the 1933 tell-all memoir by Hat Check Girl to the Stars Renee Carroll, she offers recollections of more celebrities than we could possibly list here. Many of the names are still familiar; others all but forgotten. A few we couldn’t even track down via the internet, and heaven knows we tried.
EVEN Fred Keating, the magician, once forgot where he put his hat check!
But hat check girls, even red-haired ones, have memories, so sometimes when business at my window is slack, I sit and think of the million and one things that have happened between the celebrity-laden walls of Sardi’s. Incidents, names, personalities galore, and sometimes just a casual word will start my train of thought along almost forgotten tracks. Would you like to lift the lid of the Carroll cranium and see what’s going on inside?
Here comes George Jean Nathan, world’s best critic by his own admission. I’ll never forget the day I bawled him out because he insisted on having his hat set apart from the others—and how embarrassed he was. I never suspected anyone could embarrass him . . . telling Warner Baxter that he was my favorite movie star, only to be overheard by Richard Dix to whom I had dished out the same line only two days before . . . the day Helen Menken, reddest of the red-heads, gave us a big surprise by changing to the color gentlemen are supposed to prefer . . . Incidentally, she never takes her gloves off when she eats! And here is Robert Garland, who pilots (or piles-it) the dramatic column in the World-Telly, and is a regular customer as a certain blind spot in the roaring Fifties (they’re roaring further uptown now). He’d been a regular patient at the drink infirmary for more than a year when one night he showed at the barred door and knocked the magic knock. A weary, unshaved faced appeared in the aperture.
“Hello, Tony, I wanna come in.”
“Who are you?” the face inquired.
Infuriated because he had spent his good shekels for so many nights and still remained a dim bulb in the big sign, he shouted back the first thing that came to his mind—a catchline from a New Yorker cartoon.
“You must remember me,” yelled Garland, “I’m the guy who punched my wife in the nose here last night.”
And he was ushered in with any more undue ceremony! Read More »
Here’s Chapter 2 of In Your Hat, the 1933 tell-all memoir by Hat Check Girl to the Stars, Renee Carroll:
I DON’T claim that Ziegfeld missed a bet when I decided to become a hat check girl, but I fill a spoke in the wheel, and most of the boys want to go around with me.
Honestly, though, I can’t say I hate it when for no good reason at all Buddy Rogers kisses my hand as publicly as if we had been on the Roxy stage. Two girls who were squashing their noses against Sardi’s window well-nigh swooned when that happened, and I’d be fibbing if I said I was far from pulling a faint myself. Only a few weeks before I had been standing at the stage door of the Paramount Theater waiting to catch a glimpse of America’s Boy Friend, reveling in the usual girl’s thoughts about swinging in a hammock with Buddy Rogers at my side, or is it paddlin’ a canoe or listenin’ to the moon? I’d heard lots of people call the tall dark boy Bloody Rogers in jest, but it isn’t fair.
Well, anyway, he came into Sardi’s, handed me his hat, and then, inquiring after my health in a most solicitous manner, touched his lips to my hand. Maybe it’s true that a couple of the Broadway wise boys who were sitting in the restaurant did make noises that sounded suspiciously like Bronx nose blowing, but it was a dream of a moment. For a second I forgot that I was supposed to be sophisticated.
And Bob Montgomery, before he became what he is, and you know what that is, was just another of the nice Broadway gang. He was one of my “promissory nuts”, as I called the boys of that class, who were always promising things for the dim future.
In Bobby’s case, it was always the generous tip he was forecasting because he didn’t have even a dime in his jeans to leave for checking. Not that I minded at all, but business must be on the level. And whenever he’d pick up his hat, after unsuccessful attempts to land some work by being seen at Sardi’s during lunch, he’d say: “Put it on the cuff, Renee.” Unfortunately, I wear no cuffs except mental ones, and I keep remembering little things like that.
Especially I’ll never forget the little fellow who was so near-sighted that he once tipped me a penny, certain that it was a dime. And ever afterward, recalling his mistake, he would come into Sardi’s every day and say: “You remember me, don’t you, young lady? I’m the man who gave you a cent by mistake!” As if I’d ever forget a penny tip!
Tipping is a great art if you know how, and getting the tip—particularly from a celebrity—is even a greater one. Getting a man to tip without his being conscious of the amount is the most delicate and subtle operation in the world. Some day I’m going to write a book on “The Technique of Tipping.”
I’ve been talking a lot on this subject to professional waiters. I don’t mean the boys who are helping Mother along by taking up the table as a sideline, but those whose front handles are usually Oscar or Fritz, and in whose families waiting has been a profession for centuries. One of our waiters was so proud of his serving lineage he claimed that one of his ancestors served spaghetti on the Santa Maria!
People naturally hate to tip, especially when they have a Gallic strain in them. Generosity is not usually governed by economic conditions. Even when a man who tips a good amount ordinarily is almost broke, he will not let this be a factor in keeping him from tipping his usual amount. It’s the habitual tightwad who’ll skimp on service and then go out and let his girl friend rook him for some matched sables. One day Walter Donaldson, the songwriter, drove up to the restaurant with Maurice Chevalier. It was summer, and as Chevalier came out of the auto, he took off his hat and threw it on the back seat. Donaldson kept his on.
I believe in the equal distribution of wealth, and when the two approached my booth, I stopped the inimitable Maurice.
“Mr. Chevalier,” I began. “I paid a dollar to see your newest picture last night.”
“Oh yes? And how did you like it?”
“I thought it was fine,” I told him.
“Thank you very much.”
“But, Mr. Chevalier, after I paid a dollar to see your picture, do you think it’s fair for you to leave your hat in the car to save a dime?”
I knew it wasn’t the nicest thing to do, but it worked like a charm. The Frenchman ran out into the street, retrieved his hat and deposited it with me.
“It will never happen again!” he assured me as his famous underslung lip curled forward in its traditional smile
“Merci, mille fois.” I told him in my best French. He tweaked my cheek and marched on. Walter Donaldson thought it was a riot and didn’t stop laughing for two days. Read More »