Jazz From Unexpected Places – Rudy Vallee?

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.

Copy of an actual check written by Rudy Vallee to guitarist Frank Staffa. Money talks.

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)

WARNING: Listen to this record only in an environment free from sharp instruments, loaded revolvers or implements suitable for hanging one’s self. Has been known to spawn earworms that can bore a hole through the brain, leaving the listener sobbing and incoherent. Do not induce vomiting (much as you will want to) – The only antidote is to consume liberal quantities of the next selection.

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.

Media Credits

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

14 thoughts on “Jazz From Unexpected Places – Rudy Vallee?

  1. Great entry! I asked my Grammie and my Great Aunt about Rudy back in the 60’s when I saw him on TV, I didn’t know anything about him, and they referred to him as an “entertainer”, while they gave me the idea that they sort of rolled their eyes and seemed mortified that they might have seen him or even listened to him. Later on I found out he sort of had an exaggerated persona of the “college dance band” look, mostly pre-depression era, like an image from a John Held illustration, with “baggies” (pants), navy blue sport coat, straw boater, and singing through a megaphone, which he kept long after amplification. Even tho very few Americans went to college, pre-WWII, there was a fascination with “college life” aspect, almost like a “fashion movement”. I get the idea Rudy was not considered a musical genius, but more like we would look at the “boy band” movement today: would “disposable” be the word?

    Nice additional research on the guitarist, too. I openly admit to watching a little Lawrence Welk on PBS (while I’m waiting for another show), especially the early black & white ones, where the band seems exceptionally hot (before the pabulum of the 70’s), and I noticed LW always mentions the soloists by name, and more than a couple are pretty “hot”. In this day and age of the internet, it takes no great research to find who his “swinging hot” players were. Got to give it to LW for passing around the credit!

    Liked by 2 people

    • From what I have understood, Welk was a genuinely nice guy and one who treated his musicians very well, which is not something commonly said about Vallee. The Boy Band analogy is a good one, I think. I am trying to think of a more widely popular male singer of that period and cannot.

      Yes, the “college thing” was big then, I imagine it was the rich “smart set” trendsetter thing, but college life was featured in quite a few films of that period. And I suspect that Rudy was in his fair share of them. I find it funny that by the late 30s his film work had morphed into that of a character actor – the overly cheerful, straight-laced, annoying guy that everyone hates.

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      • Just ran the numbers, and in 1930, only 3.9% of 25 year olds or older, had 4 years of college (and in 1940, it moved up only to 4.9%), and in 1930, 17.5% of people had 5 years or less of elementary school! Which makes the “college life” focus seem even more interesting, almost like “exotica”!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I enjoyed this one, especially with “Nagasaki” playing in the background. Had you not mentioned the lack of bass I would’ve thought the Staffa guitar was just that. Also, it’s a little annoying to see Vallee’s name included on the B-track credit when he had no real contribution. The price of a steady paycheck. Had to read your “Warning” a couple of times to realize it was tongue-in-cheek. But only a little tongue-in-cheek, after listening to less than a minute of “By A Waterfall”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I picked “By A Waterfall” at random, but Vallee was responsible for literally hundreds of records pretty much like that one, which is why Nagasaki is such a surprise. The more I listened, it was clear that Staffa was the guy who held everything together on this record.

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  3. I took the dare and listened to By the Waterfall all the way through, it’s not THAT bad. It’s just so generic and empty sounding, like someone opened a can of no name brand early 30’s music. Maybe I should be annoyed that this actually did come from a star brand.

    To me it sounds like Nagasaki was recorded when Vallee was out for lunch, and everyone was so relieved that this music just sprang out of the band.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I kept thinking of you as I got more under the thrall of that guitar work. There was a time when I thought of jazz guitarists as a kind of annoying side alley. However, that small but talented group of players has moved up to one of my favorite batch of players.

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