Writers, singers and orchestras

Rudy Vallee. Ruth Etting. Walter Donaldson. Dick Powell. Isham Jones. Billy Rose. Ina Ray Hutton. Paul Whiteman. Jack Yellen. Milton Ager. Gus Khan. Wendell Hall. Thomas Waller. Just some of the names that grace the covers of  my collection of song sheets and books from the 1920s to 1940s.

Rudy Vallee was  just one of the performers in a pile of old 78s that came with the gramophone we had when I was a child. There were others - Mario Lanza, Stanley Holloway, George Formby, Bing Crosby, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Vera Lynn, Guy Lombardo, Kate Smith - many of these names are still familiar today, at least among my generation and older. I recognize them on many of the song sheets.

"Ev'ry little girl wants a Rudy Vallee all her own, crooning a tune, crooning for her alone!" went the chorus of a 1930 song "dedicated to the Rudy Vallee Fans of America." (songsheet included as a PDF in the extras collection). The fans' passion for Vallee and some of the other headline stars would not be rivalled until Beatlemania of the mid-1960s.

Ruth Etting was 'America's Sweetheart' had more than 60 hits, and was a star on radio, film and stage. From the late 1920s through the early 30s, she was the most popular female voice in America.

Film star Dick Powell began his career as a crooner on record and radio, and was soon cast in dozens of Hollywood musicals until he moved over to playing the tough guy in early film noir detective flicks. Al Jolson's career began in burlesque and Vaudeville, in 1911. At his peak, with more than 80 hits, he was the highest-paid performer in America. He also started in the first talkie, The Al Jolson Story. His career on stage continued until his death in 1950.

Other names show up on the covers of these song sheets: Ethel Shutta, Ina Ray Hutton, Milton Slosser, Marion Mann, Sam Ash, Jerry Castillo, Dave Franklin, Chic Scoggin, Ted Weems, Walter Donaldson, Gus Khan, Mildred Bailey - these and hundreds of others: composers, orchestra leaders and singers, most of whom I didn't recognize when I first read them. Most are now mere footnotes in the history of popular music, but thanks to the Internet are not quite as obscure today.

Another performer of note was Al Bowlly, who also played the ukulele (the introduction to his 1932 recording of My Woman seems to some to have been the inspiration for one of the Star Wars themes).

Tin Pan Alley - not so much a place as a metaphor - had many songwriters churning out works in prodigious numbers. Many of the better writers were advertised on the songsheets - Irving Berlin, for example, was popular. He was more than just a prolific songwriter, though: he also ran a publishing house for music that included in its stable many other well-known contemporary songwriters. One of his rivals, Isham Jones, was both a popular bandleader with several top hits to his credit, and a songwriter.

Unlike today, when most bands write their own music, in the Jazz era, performers usually chose works by professional (Tin Pan Alley) songwriters. There were exceptions, of course. Rudy Vallee was also a songwriter, for example. Influential band leader, Paul Whiteman, was credited as songwriter or co-writer on several of his hits. Hoagy Carmichael was both composer and performer of many great songs.

One of the names that recur over and over from that period is George Formby Jr, whose comedic songs and stunning banjolele/ukulele strumming made the instrument popular in the UK right through into WWII. Unfortunately, none of his song sheets are my collection (yet - please contact me if you have any).

Surprisingly, for all the song sheets with ukulele arrangements, there are few recordings featuring the popular instrument. George Formby Jr., Cliff Edwards (Ukulele Ike), Roy Smeck, ("The Wizard of the Strings"), Wendell Hall and Johnny Marvin are some of the rare performers outside Hawaii who actually recorded with the uke in that era. Although May Singhi Breen is remembered more as an arranger and instructor than a performer, she and her songwriter husband, Peter DeRose, had a radio show from 1923-39 when she accompanied his piano with her ukulele. However, her recorded output seems to have been instructional lessons on 78 rpm. Arthur Godfrey comes much later, in the 1950s.

Please contact me with any comments, questions or suggestions.