I have become convinced that in any era or genre of music, there is always some small number of performers that any given listener cannot stand. These were the ones that always caused us to hit another pushbutton on the car radio when one came up on the DJ’s rotation, or the ones that caused us to die a little inside when a friend put one on the turntable.
We all have them.
When radio stations used to play 50’s music, my nemesis was Johnny Ray. I don’t know why, but I could almost never make it through a complete song. In the 70’s it was Neil Young – Yes, I know that I am quite alone here – but his voice was more bleating than singing, and I could go the rest of my life without hearing it. In the 80’s it was Journey – another where I am surely in the minority. To me, Stephen Perry’s high voice was like nails (or even a garden rake) on a chalkboard. These examples were not objectively bad singers in any way, and were quite popular in their times. Just not with me.
As a subscriber to the YouTube channel of The 78prof, I get a steady stream of all kinds of music from the 20’s into the 50’s. Some is interesting, some is good, a very few are great, but the vast majority is tolerable at best. I have decided that on the prof’s channel, my nemesis has become Rudy Vallee. So imagine my surprise when one of his records came up that completely knocked me over – almost certainly because Rudy didn’t sing.
The teen idol has a long history. Before the Beatles, there was Elvis. Before Elvis, there was Sinatra. Before Sinatra there was Bing Crosby. And before Crosby there was Rudy Vallee. From the late 1920’s into the early 30’s, Vallee was a heartthrob extraordinaire. A native to New England and a Yale man, Vallee played a saxophone but saw his strength in singing – with a high, syrupy voice of the quality that everyone still thinks of on the rare occasions they think of music from that era.
Vallee was also a man possessed of a supreme ego, and so his band (the Connecticut Yankees) was never featured on its own. Nobody knew the players’ names and even today the list contains nobody that I recognize. It was that classic trade-off for a musician: Do you want to play exciting, leading edge music, or do you value the steady paychecks that come from subordinating your creativity to the gravy train of a big star. Vallee was also possessed of a nasty temper and it was often directed at his band during rehearsals, so the gig must have paid well for musicians to put up with the dull music and the meanness of its leader.
Rudy and his orchestra went into RCA-Victor’s New York recording studio on September 6, 1933 and left with ten recordings in the books. Most of them were Rudy’s standard fare like this. Which is not a compliment. (CAUTION: Boringly Unlistenable Music Below. Click At Your Own Risk)
I dare you to click and listen all the way through. I couldn’t. But at least skip to the 2 minute mark to hear a sample of Rudy’s stock in trade. And catch that band – yes, this was what boring, insipid music sounded like in the decades before Donnie and Marie.
Whether it was Rudy not feeling well, not having enough material prepared or something else, a strange thing happened – a “B” side got cut with just the band – an instrumental version of “Nagasaki”, believed to be the only instrumental that Rudy’s band ever did. You might remember the song (a 1934 vocal version) from our retrospective on the Mills Brothers.
Here is what I find so amazing – the band behind the cloyingly average, dull-as-oatmeal Rudy Vallee, was capable of some of the hottest music I have ever heard from any band in the transitional years leading up to the classic swing era – certainly from a white bread aggregation like this one. And not only was it hot, but there was a parade of soloists featured who turned in first-rate performances. It was as though they knew that this might be their only chance to turn up the heat and play what they wanted to play, and they did it fabulously.
The thing starts out just a bit ragged, as though the guys were simply not used to playing at speed, particularly the group of trombones. It picks up when the solo muted trombone takes over, but the part that keeps me hitting “replay” on this one is the extended guitar work of an obscure guitarist named Frank Staffa. He makes himself known starting around the 45 second mark (which is coincidentally right about where this one really starts to cook) and in an extended solo starting at just before the 1 minute mark.
About all I could find on Staffa was that he played guitar and banjo for Vallee and probably did some radio work as well. But he was evidently influential among budding jazz guitarists, and this record shows why this was so. Both his solo time and his rhythm backing during the solos of the other players were fabulous early examples of jazz guitar that makes the rest of the guys swing. It appears I am not the first to notice this, as this record was included in a 2002 compilation called Guitar Rarities by the International Association of Jazz Record Collectors.
It is interesting that if a piano, bass or drums were here, they stayed so far in the background that it is almost impossible to pick them out. Staffa’s guitar is the rhythm that pulls this train from start to finish.
Vallee himself (who had virtually nothing to do with this performance beyond paying the players to be there) was as familiar to moviegoers as to music listeners until well into the 1970s – he was cast as the big boss in the 1960’s musical How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. Vallee died in 1986, just shy of his 85th birthday.
It is records like this that keep me clicking in the sea of average when old records are posted. Listening to it made me feel like the teen who gets into the Buick that Grandma never drove over 45 only to discover that there is a hot rod engine under the hood. On this record, the boys punched the gas and showed what they were made of. And I, for one, am really glad they did. It is not often that we can exhaustively showcase every single piece of jazz music to come out of a popular group, but today we can say that we have done it! If you liked this – sorry, there isn’t any more.
Rudy Vallee and his Connecticut Yankees – Nagasaki. 9/6/33 NYC Bluebird 77625-1, B-5177-B from the YouTube channel of The 78Prof
Recording date research for the 10 sides churned out 9/6/33, including two with a young Alice Faye (later to become the longtime wife of Phil Harris) at https://adp.library.ucsb.edu/index.php/mastertalent/detail/103912/Valle_Rudy?Matrix_page=6
Opening image: 1930’s film clip from cinemasojourns.com
Image of vintage sheet music for Vallee’s theme Good Night Sweetheart and Nagasaki as offered for sale on eBay
Image of a check written by Rudy Vallee to guitarist Frank Staffa as offered for sale on eBay
Photo of Frank Staffa and Rudy Vallee from gibsonl-5.com
Promotional material for the 1967 United Artists film “How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying” from moviemem.com