American vocalist Rudy Vallee (1901-1986) was among the most popular musical performers of the era between World Wars I and II. He is regarded as the first singer to cultivate the amplification-assisted vocal style known as crooning.
Vallee was a pioneer in other respects as well. Quick to realize the potential of radio as it grew explosively in the 1930s, he hosted what may have been the first example of the variety show, featuring appearances by an assortment of well-established and unknown talents. Part of his appeal was visual; Vallee was an idol who commanded near-fanatical devotion from female fans, and whose love life was played out under a media glare. He was a key contributor to the collegiate image that flourished in popular music as late as the 1960s, and he played an important role in fostering the mainstream acceptance of African-American musical performers. Vallee's contributions to the history of American popular song, in short, have arguably been underestimated.
Started Out on Drums
Born Hubert Prior Vallee on July 28, 1901, Rudy Vallee was a native of remote Island Pond, Vermont, near the Canadian border. He was of French-Canadian background and sometimes used the French form of his surname, Vallée. His father, Charles Vallee, was a pharmacist. The family moved to Westbrook, Maine, outside Portland, during Rudy's childhood, and he took immediately to a snare drum his family gave him when he was 11 years old. He was soon teaching himself piano and clarinet in between school, work at the family pharmacy, and drum duties in his high school band. When he heard the recordings of saxophonist Rudy Wiedoeft, one of the earliest practitioners of the instrument in the popular sphere, Vallee switched from clarinet to saxophone. At first he used an instrument he subleased from an electrician he met through a part-time job at the Strand Theater in Portland.
Wiedoeft was the source of Vallee's show name; reports vary as to whether Vallee himself adopted it as a kind of homage (he learned to play many of Wiedoeft's recordings by ear) or had the name bestowed on him by college friends because of his enthusiasm for the music of the older saxophonist. Vallee had no taste for pharmacy work. At 15 he ran away and joined the U.S. Navy, but was sent home when it became clear that he was under age. Determined to find a way into show business, he won a spot as a wind player in the Strand's live orchestra and began to perform at dances in the area. In 1921 Vallee graduated from high school and enrolled at the University of Maine. The following year he traveled to New York, where he met Wiedoeft, and made a saxophone record called “Japanese Sunset.”
Transferring to Yale University, Vallee studied philosophy and Spanish (he was later able to sing convincingly in several foreign languages). He largely financed his own education with saxophone gigs inside and outside Yale, and completed his coursework in segments interrupted by money-making performing trips. The 1924-25 academic year was spent in England, where he played in a band at the Savoy Hotel and encountered the British popular song “My Time Is Your Time,” the rights of which he purchased. He would later make the song famous. Back in Maine in 1925, Vallee landed a job in the resort town of Old Orchard Beach that involved singing as well as playing saxophone. Frustrated by the problem of being heard in the large dance halls in which he appeared, Vallee unscrewed the bell from his baritone saxophone and used it as a megaphone when he sang.
In the era before electronic amplification, singers (such as the then-dominant Al Jolson) tended to belt out tunes with operatic fervor. Vallee, who had no vocal training at all, produced a very different sound with his megaphone— quiet, conversational, natural, and above all, intimate. The megaphone, which Vallee used well in advance of the microphone-oriented sound of Bing Crosby and other socalled crooners in the 1930s, became his trademark and was adopted by other singers as well. Vallee graduated from Yale in 1927 and headed for New York City with some friends; the group dubbed themselves the Connecticut Yankees, with two violins, two saxophones (including Vallee's) and a piano. In 1928 they auditioned at the Heigh-Ho Club with Vallee on saxophone and another singer on vocals, but the club owner preferred Vallee's simpler style and demanded that he take on the vocal duties. From then on, although he occasionally played saxophone, Vallee was primarily a singer.
Gained Fans Through Live Radio
Although his voice seemed musically undistinguished, Vallee's style was unusual at the time. According to Vallee's obituary in the London Times, the term “crooner” was specifically coined to describe Vallee's singing. His success began to grow almost immediately after he was installed at the Heigh-Ho Club, and he was helped along by the development of the live radio broadcast. Fan mail began to roll in when Vallee and his band were first featured on radio station WABC in February of 1928. Opening the proceedings with a chipper “Heigh ho, everybody,” Vallee soon moved to the more powerful station WOR (which was deluged with 50,000 requests after the station offered listeners a copy of Vallee's picture) and then to a network of stations that collectively put him on the air 25 times a week.
Vallee was equally effective in live appearances at such large theaters as the Coliseum and the Palace Theater, performing not only “My Time Is Your Time” but also a song called “The Vagabond Lover” (which he wrote himself) that became the title of his first film, released in 1929. The film was unsuccessful, but the “Vagabond Lover” nickname remained with Vallee for most of the rest of his career.
When he returned to New York after making The Vagabond Lover in Hollywood, Vallee premiered a new NBC network radio show that would run for the next ten years; called The Fleischmann Hour at first, after its yeast-maker sponsor, it was soon renamed The Rudy Vallee Show. Early episodes of the show featured Vallee singing in front of a 16-piece orchestra, but soon the format was broadened to include other artists, some of whom were emerging talents. Famous performers who got early national exposure on Vallee's show included singer Kate Smith, comedians Fred Allen and Jack Benny, and ventriloquist Edgar Bergen. Top stars such as George Gershwin and Eddie Cantor appeared as well, and Vallee got plenty of exposure for his own vocals, singing hits like “Marie,” “The Stein Song” (the University of Maine fight song), “Cheerful Little Earful,” and, well in advance of the version in the film Casablanca, “As Time Goes By.” After the run of the program came to an end, Vallee had a starring role in another show, sponsored by the Sealtest dairy; that show, too, was eventually rechristened with his own name.
At a time when the entertainment industry was largely segregated, Vallee took an inclusive stance toward African-American performers. Among those invited to appear on The Rudy Vallee Show were dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and jazz singer and pianist Thomas “Fats” Waller. Vallee in turn performed in clubs in the Harlem neighborhood at the invitation of trumpeter and bandleader Louis Armstrong, among others. Throughout the 1930s, Vallee was one of the biggest stars in the United States, and one widely reported rumor held that a woman in the Midwest had shot her husband after he demanded that she tune the radio to a different station during Vallee's Thursday night time slot. It was especially women, from youthful “bobby soxers” to those in middle age, who flocked to Vallee's shows and were attracted to his debonair, Ivy League image. Touring and appearing at his own Villa Vallee theater on 60th Street in Manhattan, Valley earned about $20,000 a week at his peak, often doing three radio broadcasts, an early theatrical show, and club sets at his Villa Vallee.
Enlisted in Coast Guard
World War II brought a hiatus in Vallee's career as he enlisted in the military for a second time, this time in the Coast Guard. He served as conductor of the 11th Naval District Coast Guard Band before returning to radio in 1944. In the late 1930s and early 1940s Vallee also appeared in a series of now mostly forgotten films that included Sweet Music, Gold Diggers of Paris, and The Palm Beach Story. He also appeared in the stage revues George White's Scandals of 1931 and Scandals of 1936.
Vallee's career as a hit maker was largely over by the end of World War II, but he maintained visibility through a variety of movie roles, including The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer (1947) and I Remember Mama (1948). Often he appeared in character roles in comedies, several of them helmed by director Preston Sturges. In 1949 Vallee married Eleanor Kathleen Norris. She was his fourth wife; the Vagabond Lover's three earlier marriages, to Leonie Cauchois, Faye Webb, and Bettyjane Grier, had ended in divorce. Vallee had no children. He felt ill at ease in the new medium of television, but could still command good crowds for live appearances in a one-man show that showcased his talents as a teller of bawdy tales.
Vallee received some of the best reviews of his acting career for the Broadway play How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1961), in which he played a bumbling corporate executive with a passion for golf. The show ran for three and a half years and was followed by a film version (1967), in which Vallee appeared with equal success. “I've come a long way from Vermont and Maine on a highway paved, for the most part, with good fortune,” he was quoted as saying, according to his obituary in the New York Times. Vallee kept performing, often appearing at benefit concerts, until shortly before his death. He died of a stroke following surgery for esophageal cancer, on July 3, 1986, in Hollywood. His body was returned to Westbrook and buried at St. Hyacinth's Cemetery. A collection of his personal materials is housed at the Thousand Oaks Library in Thousand Oaks, California. Three Vallee autobiographies have been published: Vagabond Dreams Come True (1929), My Time Is Your Time (1962), and Let the Chips Fall (1975).
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“Rudy Vallee,” Solid! The Encyclopedia of Big Band, Lounge, Classic Jazz, and Space-Age Sounds, http://www.parabrisas.com/d_valleer.php (January 7, 2008).