The Coming of the Crooners by Ian Whitcomb

The gentle art of crooning, a pop murmur that was gratefully heard around the world until scuppered by the shouts and screams of rock’n’roll, was made possible by the establishment of commercial radio in the early 1920s. Radio’s microphones, amplifiers and loudspeakers allowed into the home and heart a steady stream of unguent from a dapper and friendly party of confidential song salesmen who offered nothing less than comfort and shelter from the storms of life. In their language of love the crooners were eventually to perfect electronic musical romance in two minutes or so of sweet nothings, skillfully crafted as if they were singing to you and you alone.

Now & Then: Music From the Great Depression(s) 2010 / 1929 

Boasted the radio engineers, “The sophistication of our microphones is such that we can even capture the swish of a powder puff as it passes over the nose of some fair lady.” This was an age of unstoppable advance in modern technology. Horse and buggy were old hat; stentorian preachers and booming Chautauqua lecturers, not to mention red-faced politicians pounding and hectoring from distant platforms, would soon be Victorian hangovers. The soft and casual radio “Fireside Chats” of FDR were just around the corner.

The coming of the seemingly effete crooner was not only part of a technological revolution but also of a social one.

In the beginning, back in real Olden Times, crooning was confined to a mother soothing her baby with lullabies, rocking in steady rhythm so that the child was soon safe in dreamland. Thus was crooning a woman’s job. By the end of the nineteenth century red-blooded American males prided themselves on being macho meat eaters with a steady eye and a hearty handshake. Men were men, women were women, and a good cigar was a smoke. Popular singing styles reflected this beefy masculinity: the balladeers of stage and saloon sang from deep in their chests, giving forth at a volume capable of breaking a glass at fifty paces or so.

Now & Then: Music From the Great Depression(s) 2010 / 1929 

There was also a practical reason for such strength — in those pre-microphone days it was necessary for artists to bellow in order to be heard at the back of a theatre. Nobody slept when Al Jolson belted out his joy at being alive. In the recording studio, again without benefit of electrical amplification, leather-lunged singers were required, accompanied by vibrant instrumentation. Banjos and bells were favored, sitting well with ragtime shouters and chirrupy comedians.

The radio craze of the 1920s cut into record sales mightily. Why should folks buy a hissy, squawking disc when they could hear smooth sounds for free?  And radio also provided a free mouthpiece for song pluggers, the most successful being those with an intimate tone that flew straight into a housewife’s heart.  Women called the tune when pop culture left the public place for the private home.

In the beginning, spreading across the ether of the Midwest, was an odd assortment of rugged individualists with a soft vocal approach: Art Gillham, “The Whispering Pianist,” “Little” Jack Little, “The Friendly Voice of the Cornfields”; covering New York was another suave whisperer, Jack Smith, “The Whispering Baritone,” darling of the New York cocktail set.

Now & Then: Music From the Great Depression(s) 2010 / 1929 

When the recording industry saw the light and went electric too in 1925 these intimate voices could be spread all over America and even the world. The culture was ready for them, a perfect synchronicity. For, in the middle of the brash and noisy jazz age, a league of gentlemen was challenging the vo-dodeo-do by clever use of the mike — confidential conversationalists, easy-going fellows with a certain bedside manner in their restrained voices.

They were early crooners — before the term became derogatory and then standard — without the sappiness that was to follow. With nonchalance they effected a pop revolution by bringing out that hitherto repressed femininity hidden under the hide of the All-American brute-master. They were revolutionaries suggesting an alternate male world of soft collars, soft shirts, and soft hats, accompanied by a soft courtliness in the modern manner. They were the new troubadours, offering medieval romanticism in an age of flappers, vamps and machine gun gangsters. They were the civilized side of the jazz age. And they tempered their good manners with good humor.

Let us look in more detail at some of these early masters of the mike.

Now & Then: Music From the Great Depression(s) 2010 / 1929 

Of all the pioneers Gene Austin, a Texan, had, I believe, the most beautiful voice and most relaxing style. He had started as a hot singer in the acoustic days but electricity had freed him to croon. Radio never claimed him, perhaps because he loved the road too much. Despite his million-selling anthem to domestic bliss, “My Blue Heaven” (1927), he was a rolling stone with a filled flask of hooch, gathering and shedding quite a few wives along the way. But he had a generous nature and nurtured the songwriting career of Fats Waller, being the first to record Fats’ “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ,” insisting that the composer play piano on the disc. His effortless balladeering was a big influence on the young Gene Autry and on many later country stars such as Eddie Arnold. Even Elvis cites Austin as one of his heroes. In the late 1920s he sold more records than any other performer.

Now & Then: Music From the Great Depression(s) 2010 / 1929 

“Little” Jack Little hewed closer to the mike than Austin; it was almost as if his very life depended on it. Born John Leonard in London, he was raised in Iowa. After song plugging and radio work he was called to the recording studio where he showed off his radiophonic skills: a slow exhalation of breath would preface his interpretation of a new streamlined ballad, very often his own work. Radio dictated a need for ultra simple melodies with short verses, stuff that could catch on to be repeated over and over as when a child gets hooked on a story. Executives had informed Tin Pan Alley that a range of no more than five melody notes around the middle of the keyboard were most suitable for quality radiophonics.

Guided by this Jack Little wrote catchy tunes which he recorded out of the side of his mouth, daring you to come closer, backing it with his own simple piano—punctuated by fiery bursts of chinesey phrases and ear-thrilling cross-hand thumb melodies. A pixie offering gifts of featherweight slivers of song. In the 1930s he scored with “Hold Me,” performing it so quietly you’d have to hold him to hear it. Then he hit with “A Shanty In Old Shanty Town” but curiously he was never asked to record it. Soon he was swallowed up in the mass of other mooing cookie-cut crooners of the period.

The same thing was to happen to Jack Smith, “The Whispering Baritone,” another eccentric from this bohemian and freewheeling era of popular singing. Always pictured in immaculate evening dress, he sang-spoke with clear clipped enunciation, often rolling his “r”s, a true diseur. Though he could tell us the sad story of “Me And My Shadow” he could also sing tongue in cheek, something he had in common with Art Gillham, his deadly rival. In “Baby Face” he rolls merrily along until the tail end when he suddenly spoils the hymn of praise to the little girlie by stating:” But at the break of dawn with all her make-up gone — Oh, Lord! What a face!”

Art Gillham, another pianist-singer like Little, Smith and Austin, is perhaps the most interesting of all these trailblazers for he spans the period between the end of ragtime and the start of electronic media. Cannily he understood the power of radio.

Now & Then: Music From the Great Depression(s) 2010 / 1929 

A wandering troubadour who’d learned his rugged style in the fleshpots of St Louis, hotbed of ragtime, he was, by 1922, a plugger for a Chicago publisher. This enabled him to perambulate around the hinterland, dropping in on new-fangled radio stations (most started by department stores, newspapers, and even a dry-cleaners—outfits that were truly greenhorn) in order to demonstrate his latest wares. The radio people were delighted to let him fill their virtually empty air with cracker-barrel musings as he snuggled up close to the mike since his voice was rather thin.

“C’mon fingers — percoolate!” he’d say when the instrumental passage came up. Or he’d ask of his listeners (“customers”, he called them): “D’ya happen to have a cup of coffee in your pocket?”) This was something new in radio — announcers were inclined to be stuffy — and listeners found him refreshingly down-homey, like the hillbilly acts they were preferring over classical divas and hot city jazz bands. Art was using the invisible art of radio to create a persona: “I’m just a fat, bald old fellow who wants his coffee.” None of this was true. Trim, thick-haired and bespectacled, he read “Variety” and knew the score. He was a modern minstrel from an old oak tree.

In 1924, when he arrived at WSB, the powerful Atlanta station that made a habit of featuring hillbillies and mountain men, Mr. Lambdin Kay, station manager, recognized a homespun talent with an edgy line in humor: “I Had Someone Else Before I Had You (And I’ll Have Someone After You’re Gone” was as spicy as local hero Fiddlin’ John Carson’s “It’s A Shame to Whip Your Wife On Sunday (When You’ve Got Monday And Tuesday).” Carson had gone on to sell a heap of records nationally via the Okeh label. He was part of the important new hillbilly market. Gillham could score too. In an article for “The Atlanta Journal” Mr. Kay described Art as “The Whispering Pianist” — and sent him on his way to New York, centre of show biz.

And this is how he was billed when, the following year for Columbia Records, he cut the very first electrical recording, another of those tough ballads, “You May Be Lonesome But You’ll Be Lonesome Alone.” Every nuance of his persona was tapped forever. The old-time minstrel had become the modern crooner.

Much as I love these odd characters they were all to be doomed by the inevitable standardization required by the entertainment industry. Our pioneers had been allowed on radio and record when the airwaves and record grooves were wide-open to experimentation because the executives didn’t yet know the rules of the game.

By 1929 this first wave of avuncular, smiley crooners was challenged by the sudden rise of Rudy Vallee, an authentic Ivy Leaguer with a voice exuding sex appeal — something noticeably lacking in Smith, Gillham, Austin and Little.

Now & Then: Music From the Great Depression(s) 2010 / 1929 

Unfortunately there’s not much laughter in the sex game. Vallee maintained a poker face as a crooning sensation, letting his wavy voice match his wavy hair. Off the record, he claimed his sex appeal was due to a phallic quality deep in his throat. Be that as it may, his was a voice that began life in his upper head and, processing down his nose and into the mike, arrived high and trilling in American homes with all the authority of lavender and lace. But he never smiled.

Originally a bandleader broadcasting as a radio “remote” from a New York club, he was being networked around the entire country by 1930. He was the first swooner-crooner.

He was also one of the last in the line of high-pitched male singers. Improvements in mike technology would make possible the broadcasting and recording of deeper and wider tones, thus opening a door to the likes of Bing Crosby and Russ Columbo. The heaven-stroking sound of a Nick Lucas or a Morton Downey would soon become the exception. Still, they and the other high tenors had at least been gamely carrying on the great tradition of Italian bel canto (Lucas) and Irish balladry (Downey).

Now & Then: Music From the Great Depression(s) 2010 / 1929 

However, for the time being, as 1929 sank from an everybody-happy high through the Stock Market Crash to the Great Depression, the slightly epicene Rudy Vallee voice, coupled with a winning college boy charm, held a firm grip on millions of females — from girls to wives to elderly matrons. Such a grip that bosoms stirred and real men expectorated when radios poured out the Vallee unction, that newspapers warned of the “Vallee Peril” caused by this “punk from Maine” with the “dripping voice,” that police were called in to beat back crowds of screaming women at his vaudeville appearances, that the trailer for his first movie, “The Vagabond Lover,” exclaimed: “Men Hate Him! Women Love Him!”  Calmly the “Literary Digest” pinpointed the crooner’s secret as lying in the strange alchemy of the mike. A voice hardly more than banal is conjured into something special: “That rarest charm of beauty — uniqueness, novelty. His voice is a new sound.”

And so the sweeping success of this novelty voice inevitably leveled the field. The quirky Gillhams, Smiths and Littles were to be sidelined. On came a host of sweet modulators, singing excessively of arms and charms, of moon and June, following the example set by the well-bred, almost bland New Englander.

Now & Then: Music From the Great Depression(s) 2010 / 1929 

The leader was soon joined at the top by two fellows — certainly not gentlemen — with manlier voices. Bing Crosby, a reformed jazzer, developed a deeper and more robust sound, while Russ Columbo, one time dance violinist, sported Valentino looks and a way with ballads that made him seem he was in the depths of passion.

Both were the antithesis of jazz rhythms, their music winding its mournful way with much melisma and almost halting for sobs, their songwriters cushioning the melodies on comfy minor seventh chords. Obviously, from record sales and radio polls, there was a place for this in the hearts of the public in those dire times But there were many detractors too: one woman wrote to the “New York Times,” in response to President Hoover’s invitation to Rudy Vallee to sing a song to chase Depression, complaining that crooners were creating a “depression of spirit.”

Indeed the press was having a field day disseminating attacks on “the crooning boom.” In January 1932 Boston-based Cardinal O’Connell was quoted describing crooning as “a degenerate form of singing. No true American would practice this base art. I cannot turn the dial without getting these whiners and bleaters defiling the air and crying vapid words to impossible tunes.” There were jokes about Un-American groaners who were recommending a life of slacking rather than the rolled-sleeve hard-digging required by the ever-worsening Hard Times. There was more than a suggestion that crooners were creatures of the English silk pajama kind, reeking of self-pity, submission, and posing as prisoners of love.

Now & Then: Music From the Great Depression(s) 2010 / 1929 

But the truth, I think, is that these art-of-the-sofa crooners, in their fashion, did their bit to provide a needed calm and comfort. For, in 1933, as the Depression closed in with its blanket of darkness, the castles of electric show biz stood out bright and twinkly, like lordly havens in the darkest Middle Ages, generating through their reassuring artists a stream of songs of solace driven by rhythms of rest, making for a peace that passed understanding. “Boo, boo, boo!,” sang Bing, shooing away the Big Bad Wolf.

As FDR established his hold, spurring the country into action — any action, as long as it kept people busy — so, like the earlier whimsical singers of the late 1920s, the need for emotional wailing and keening disappeared. It didn’t help when Russ Columbo was killed in a gun accident.

But Crosby survived because he changed with the times so that by the end of the 1930s he had re-invented himself as Mr. Average Joe, a regular guy who enjoyed watching sports, wore cardigans and slacks, and smoked a pipe. Gone was the threat of any Radio Romeo coming down the chimney to break up a happy home. Exclusively soppy singing was out. Bing was now catholic in his musical tastes — recording, in a dispassionately democratic manner, now a Hawaiian novelty, now a hillbilly romp and later even “Adeste Fideles.”

Every other male singer copied him, snuggling in, like a fifth column, beside the hot swing bands, weathering all the latest trends, until by the end of the 1940s crooners were back at the top of the pop pile, due partly to the Big Bands collapse-- owing to their determination to jazz it up more and more dissonantly, thus ignoring the eternal need for romance and a chance to dance.

Crooner balladry, relieved by the odd novelty number, continued smoothly until the coming of Elvis and the army of unruly rockers in the middle 1950s. How ironic that Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’s Svengali, had once managed the affairs of Gene Austin, genial songbird of the South! And how nice that right in the middle of the Elvis kerfuffle Gene hit the Billboard charts with a self-penned number called, “Too Late.”

In my book it’s never too late for the crooners.

© Ian Whitcomb