The Golden Days of
Traditional Pop Singing
The human voice is the oldest, most personal, and most expressive instrument in the world, and the one most often recorded. Before the days of rock and roll, there were hundreds of "pop singers" who were held in high esteem. It is now time to highlight a few of those famous and important vocalists.
They came from all directions – vaudeville, dance bands, country music, musical comedy, and out of the churches – but they soon settled into a mainstream pop career that eventually separated them somewhat from their musical roots. A few of the early singers have already been mentioned in this book, but they will be listed again, so this chapter might serve as a single location for quick reference to America's traditional pop singers.
Traditional pop songs took shape during the 1920s when the Mighty Five (see page 38) and others began to take over stage musicals, pushing out the vaudeville tunesmiths. At the same time, jazz groups, dance bands, radio shows, recording artists, and film musicals created a voracious appetite for these new, more artistic pop songs.
Under these circumstances, a popular tune, "Star Dust", for example, would earn millions of dollars for its composer and performers in live performance, radio, movie, and recording royalties. One tune, one good traditional pop tune, was indeed a valuable piece of copyright merchandise.
Pop songs are different from the songs found in rock, jazz, operetta, gospel, and the blues. First, they are almost always romantic and gentle in their language. "Blue Moon", "Embraceable You", "Tenderly", and other traditional ballads are declarations of dreams and desires as revealed in the courtship behavior of American adolescents during, roughly, the early 1920s through to the late 1960s.
"They don't write songs like that anymore" is absolutely true because those sociocultural conditions don't exist anymore. For fifty years, however, those standard pop tunes were the secular psalms of the land, compressed expressions of the collective social and cultural values and attitudes of the nation.
Second, the songs have memorable chords and melodies which lend themselves to imaginative instrumental treatment. The tunes were raw material which musicians arranged and re-arranged for singers, for dance bands, for movie scenes, and for nightclub floor shows.
Third, the delivery of the great pop songs was always moderate and refined. In the entire history of pop music, no one ever screamed out, "A kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh!" (Hemming and Hajdu 1991, 3). Nor has anyone ever shrieked and bellowed out the charming words to "Moon River".
Pop singers take great care to convey the lyrics, the words to the song. They want the listener to connect with the song, and draw emotional meaning from it (Hemming and Hajdu 1991, 3). To accomplish this, they enunciate clearly and try to obey the "oratorical rhythms and emphases" of the English language (Pleasants 1974, 16).
Unlike jazz singers, pop singers often sing and record songs they are not especially fond of. They lean toward tunes they like, of course, but they are quite willing to answer requests for light-weight ditties. And once into the tune, they will give it their best reading. They think of themselves as professionals who can and should work with all kinds of "material". They are pleasantly surprised, to be sure, when a throw-away tune on the B-side of one of their singles turns into a giant financial success.
Pop singers move easily in and out of allied fields. The world of entertainment is a business for them, and they surround themselves with agents, accountants, and lawyers who take care of that business. These business associates often push their talented singers into radio, television, and the movies. It is a logical progression of their careers. The singers handle the English language well, and consider themselves performers, so they sometimes turn into top-level radio personalities, movie stars, and television hosts.
It happened from the 1920s well into the 1960s. Kate Smith, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore, Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, Ginger Rogers, Andy Griffith, Doris Day, and hundreds of others were singers before they became movie stars and television celebrities.
FIFTY YEARS OF POP SINGERS
What follows is a survey of traditional pop singers – those who became household names by virtue of their personal renditions of the standard popular tunes of the day – from the 1920s to the late 1960s, from Tin Pan Alley to Woodstock. After Woodstock, the pop music industry became very specialized, as performers more and more sang only their own tunes, which other performers often avoided. By that time, traditional pop singing of traditional pop songs was history, and an age had ended.
In rough chronological order, the following pop singers were at one time very important and influential, inspiring hundreds of imitators. Some listed below enjoyed only a brief period of fame and fortune. Others had better luck, and survived for long and successful careers. Pop singing, like professional sports, is often a difficult, unpredictable, brief occupation.
Surely one of the best pop singers, ever, was Louis Armstrong (1901-1971). It went on for fifty years, and no one seemed to mind that his voice was raspy and gritty. The secret was in his phrasing, in the way he altered an interval now and then to deliver the text more to his inclination of the moment.
He was also the first of the jazz "scat" singers, singing improvised phrases on neutral syllables, no words. And no matter what he was singing – fast or slow, great song or average pop tune, strong words or inane lyrics – he always "swung", which is to say, that he sang his words with such rhythmic emphasis that the beat was noticeable and pleasurable at all times. (For more about Louis Armstrong's career, see page 126.)
For information on Al Jolson's career, please see page 56.
In contrast to Al Jolson's energetic singing, Hubert Prior Vallee (1901-1986), sang through a cheerleader's megaphone in a soft, gentle, conversational singing style called "crooning". His first band, the Yale Collegians, consisted of two strings, two saxophones, and a four-man rhythm section. After graduation in 1927, Rudy Vallee and the Connecticut Yankees became the most famous pop group in the nation during a long engagement at the Heigh-Ho Club in New York. His signature greeting, "Heigh-ho, everybody!" opened each evening of dancing, and the band was heard on four radio stations each week.
Girls shrieked and swooned when he sang. He was the first in a long line of American teen heartthrobs, and (like Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley years later) most men and nearly all music critics hated him. His blue eyes, Ivy League manner, boyish charm, and shrewd business instincts took him to the top of the industry, however.
He sang in four languages, and for ten years had his own radio show, The Fleischmann Hour, America's first network radio hour. He was an amiable and affable host, with a natural flair for comedy that would later play an important part in carrying him through a long career in show business (Hemming and Hajdu 1991, 34). He co-wrote several of his most famous songs, "I'm Just a Vagabond Lover", "My Time Is Your Time", "Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries", and "Say It Isn't So". As a Yale graduate, he had to sing "The Whiffenpoof Song" (the theme song for Yale's senior male a cappella group) nearly every time he appeared in public, of course.
Rudy Vallee is said to have predicted the demise of his own style with the rise of Bing Crosby, who possessed a microphone technique unnecessary when Vallee began (Clarke 1989, 1993). (For more information regarding Bing Crosby's career, see page 92.)
Known as the "Songbird of the South", Kathryn Elizabeth Smith (1909-1986) began her career as a vaudeville song-and-dance performer. Short and rotund, she drew applause when she sang and danced the Charleston. She moved into Broadway musicals, but always as the object of jokes made about her size.
A chance guest appearance on Rudy Vallee's radio show attracted the interest of Columbia Records executive, Ted Collins. He became her fan, then manager, then husband. In a short time, Kate Smith was a very famous female pop singer. In 1933, at age twenty-four, she earned three thousand dollars a week, at that time the highest paid woman in America.
Her late 1930s radio show, The Kate Smith Hour, was a mixture of pleasant songs, motherly responses to her fans' letters and unabashed words of patriotic encouragement to all the poor and lonely in America's Depression-era society. At its peak in 1939, the program had twenty-three million listeners per day, and Kate Smith received three million letters that year.
Her voice was in the mezzo-soprano range and color, and she used it effortlessly to convey the standard pop tunes of the day. Her radio theme song, "When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain", was her biggest hit until an Armistice Day program in 1938. She wanted a patriotic tune, and asked Irving Berlin to provide one. Berlin dusted off a tune he had deleted from a 1918 wartime musical, Yip! Yip! Yaphank!, and gave her "God Bless America".
"God Bless America" swept the nation, to say the least, and all profits still go to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America. Every now and then, there is a movement to make the song America's national anthem.
Nat "King" Cole
In the twenty-one years he was at the top, Nathaniel Adams Coles (1919-1965) sold fifty million records (the "s" in his name was dropped in his teens). His resonant baritone voice was rich, relaxed, and hauntingly warm. He had a marvelous way of "caressing a word, of wrapping his voice around it" (Pleasants 1979, 226).
In 1943, at age twenty-four, he recorded "Straighten Up and Fly Right" with his piano-bass-guitar jazz trio. The vocal caught everyone by surprise. Up to that time, he had been considered only as a rising jazz pianist in the style of a modern Earl Hines. He gradually moved away from jazz piano, and became one of the most famous singers in the industry.
His giant hits – "Mona Lisa", "Nature Boy", "The Christmas Song", "Route 66", "Sweet Lorraine", and "Too Young" – were brought back into America's memory when his daughter, Natalie, released an album, with her singing her father's songs. The first single from the album was an ingenious electronic work of wonder, "Unforgettable", which allowed her to sing a "virtual" duet with her late father. This revealed just how sophisticated and beautiful Nat Cole's vocal quality and style were, and still are.
Born in Chicago, Francisco Paolo LoVecchio (1913-2007) knocked around as a machinist, car salesman, and bouncer in a beer parlor. He changed his name to Frankie Laine and began working in the local nightclubs. Hoagy Carmichael heard him sing "Rockin' Chair", and got him a job at the Vine Street Club in Hollywood, California, for seventy-five dollars per week.
A big, rugged type, Frank Laine sang with great passion and masculine intensity. Mercury Records picked him up, and his first release, "We'll Be Together Again", took off. It was followed by "That's My Desire" in 1947, and nearly seventy more Top 100 hits over the next ten years, among them "Mule Train", "Jezebel", "That Lucky Old Sun", and "Jealousy". He was also known for the theme song to the TV show Rawhide, as well as the theme song for Mel Brooks' western comedy, Blazing Saddles.
With thirty hits to her credit, Kay Starr, born Katherine Laverne Starks (b. 1922) in Oklahoma, held her own with the best. After a brief career in country music, she moved to the big bands of Bob Crosby and Glenn Miller. Her first big hit, "Bonaparte's Retreat" (1948), was followed by "Wheel of Fortune" (1952), which was No. 1 in the nation for ten weeks.
Her buoyant enthusiasm and bell-like clarity gave each song a professional sparkle. "Oh Babe", "Side by Side", "I'll Never Be Free", and the charming "Rock and Roll Waltz" (1955) made her a household name all through the 1950s.
Born in Maysville, Kentucky, Rosemary Clooney (1928-2002) got her start on Cincinnati radio station WLW at age thirteen singing with her sister Betty. The girls then traveled with the Tony Pastor big band for three years, after which Rosemary went on to a huge solo career.
"Beautiful Brown Eyes" was a modest hit, but "Come-on-a My House" (1951), with an unusual harpsichord accompaniment, sold over a million copies, and made Rosemary Clooney a star overnight. She went on to record a dozen giant hits, among them "Tenderly", "Half as Much", "Hey, There", and "This Ole House". In 1956, the "Rosemary Clooney Television Show" was carried by over one hundred TV stations.
In several movies (including the classic White Christmas), on the Palladium stage in London, and in the best supper clubs of the nation, Rosemary Clooney charmed audiences with her careful interpretations of great tunes, with her musical sophistication, and with her radiant good looks.
Although she struggled with bipolar disorder and depression, as well as an addiction to prescription drugs into the 1970s, she had a comeback of sorts beginning in the early 1990s and she continued to tour until late 2001, when she was diagnosed with lung cancer, which she died of six months later.
Frances Rose Shore (1919-1993) picked up her stage name, "Dinah", from the theme song of her program on hometown radio station, WSM, in Nashville, Tennessee. She then went to New York and began a steady climb to the top of the business. In January, 1939, she joined Leo Reisman's band, and shortly after recorded with Xavier Cugat's orchestra.
She appeared on Your Hit Parade, and was named the "new star of radio" for 1940. Eddie Cantor put her on his popular radio program in 1942, and for three years she enjoyed fame as everyone's favorite female pop singer.
Her records sold in the millions – "Yes, My Darling Daughter", "Blues in the Night", "Buttons and Bows", "Shoo-Fly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy", "Doin' What Comes Natur'lly", "Lavender Blue", "Dear Hearts and Gentle People", and "The Anniversary Song" are best remembered.
In the late 1940s, she appeared in several movies, then did a fifteen minute NBC television show from 1951 to 1956, and finally hit her peak of fame in 1957 with her own prime-time TV variety show, complete with celebrity guests, comedy skits, and big production numbers. The show was an American favorite well into the 1960s.
She had a gentle manner with people, and treated friends and coworkers with a natural mixture of energy, generosity, and gracious Southern charm.
For information on Judy Garland's career, please see page 90.
One of the most accomplished singers in jazz history, Ella Jane Fitzgerald (1917-1996) won the admiration of mainstream pop music fans on her first big hit, "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" (1938). She later recorded a series of two-record "songbooks", each devoted to a different songwriter or songwriting team. Her clean, clear, warm tones gave everything a distinct elegance and sophistication, and her delivery was faultless at all times.
She would sing "Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall" in the pure manner described above, and her pop fans would be very happy. The very next tune might be "Perdido", and she would scat and swing in the highest of jazz traditions. Her instinctive approach was to honor the composer's intent on every tune, and that pleased both pop and jazz fans.
See page 93 for more information on Frank Sinatra's career.
Anthony Dominick Bennedetto (b. 1926), born in Queens, New York, got his first break at age twenty-four on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts show, under the name Joe Bari. At the time he was working as an elevator operator, and singing free for anyone who would listen.
Bob Hope heard him in a guest appearance on Pearl Bailey's show at a Greenwich Village nightclub, suggested a name change, and took him on a national tour. When the tour ended, Mitch Miller at Columbia Records took interest, and selected "The Boulevard of Broken Dreams" as a trial record. It clicked.
Then came "Because of You", "Cold, Cold Heart", "I Won't Cry Anymore", "Rags to Riches", "Stranger in Paradise", and later his 1962 blockbuster, "I Left my Heart in San Francisco". He's been at or near the top of the pop music industry ever since.
Pierino Como (1912-2001) was born in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania. He worked as a barber just out of high school, then auditioned for Freddie Carlone's band. He stayed for three years, but joined the Ted Weems orchestra in 1937. When Ted Weems got drafted into World War II, Como went back to Pennsylvania to resume his career as a barber.
Too many people had heard that resonant, dark, and very musical baritone voice, however, to forget him. Victor Records offered a demo record, and "Goodbye Sue" in 1943 became the first in a long line of hits. Especially memorable were his elegant treatments of "Till the End of Time", "Prisoner of Love", "Long Ago and Far Away", "If I Loved You", "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows", "Catch a Falling Star", and "I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now".
From 1944 to 1958, Perry Como had forty-two songs in the Top Ten. He had his own television show for eight years, and enjoyed a sixty-five-year reputation as one of the most highly respected singers in pop music history.
Doris Mary Ann Kappelhoff (b. 1922), born in Cincinnati, Ohio, wanted to be a dancer, but broke her leg in an auto accident at age fourteen. While recovering, she took voice lessons from Grace Raine, who taught her to "make the lyrics mean what they say" (Hemming and Hajdu 1991, 153). Her first singing job was with bandleader Barney Rapp who coaxed her into changing her name to Doris Day.
By age sixteen, she was working in New York with Bob Crosby, then moved to the Les Brown band for six years of success and great recordings, among them "My Dreams Are Getting Better All the Time" and "Sentimental Journey".
She broke into the movies in 1948 singing "It's Magic" in Romance on the High Seas, and immediately became America's favorite girl next door – blonde, blue-eyed, with freckles, a cute smile, a pug nose, and a trim figure. She eventually made thirty-nine movies (including some that didn't feature her singing, and co-starring leading men such as Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart). She was twice named the number-one audience attraction nationwide, only the fourth actress in movie history to be so named. Her giant hit from Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much, "Que Será, Será (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)", won the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1956.
Meanwhile, her third husband embezzled and lost $20 million of her savings. She turned her attention to television, and had her own successful sitcom from 1968 to 1972. By this time, her singing career was over, but she will always be remembered for a marvelous mezzo-soprano voice, clear and clean, with an adolescent sensuality produced by subtle inflections in the way she delivered the text.
William Clarence Eckstein (1914-1993) changed the spelling of his last name when an agent suggested that the spelling "Eckstein" looked too "Jewish" in print, and perhaps might limit his bookings. A little odd, it seems, these days.
Billy Eckstine's African-American roots were deep in jazz as a trumpeter, occasional guitarist, and valve trombonist, and his place is secure in jazz history as one of the most successful and innovative big bandleaders in the age of be-bop. But it was his rich, deep, resonant baritone voice, his suave personality, and his movie-star good looks that launched him into a career as a romantic pop singer.
From 1949 to 1952 he was at the top of the pop charts with "My Foolish Heart", "I Apologize", "I Wanna Be Loved", and several others. His jazz-tinged phrases were long and lyrical, and his vocal sound was almost operatic, at times. He justly deserved the complimentary title, the fabulous "Mr. B."
Handsome and care-free, Dino Paul Crocetti (1917-1995) from Steubenville, Ohio, had two careers, both very successful and profitable. The first was as one-half of the comedy team of Martin and Lewis; the second was as a pop singer, movie actor, television star, and lovable Hollywood playboy.
When he broke away from the talented Jerry Lewis in 1956, everyone thought he would disappear from show business. It turned out that he had a knack for playing himself – a charming, laid-back, irreverent, skirt-chasing, scotch-on-the-rocks style, Italian night club singer. Indeed, he often did his night club routine with a drink in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and a gorgeous young starlet not too far away.
Elvis Presley was greatly impressed, and tried to copy Dean Martin's vocal style and hip manner – especially that relaxed, gently slurred articulation of the lyrics, as, for example, in Martin's treatment of "Memories Are Made of This".
The critics were never much impressed with Dean Martin's singing, but the fans kept him up in the Top 40 for many years. "That's Amore", "Everybody Loves Somebody", and "Volare" show him to be a master of the casual manner with a pop tune. His charter membership in Frank Sinatra's "rat pack" and his friendship with well-known Mafia club owners gave Dean Martin a guaranteed career from the 1950s through to the early 1980s.
Surely one of the most beautiful pop singers ever was Lena Mary Calhoun Horne (1917-2010), born in Brooklyn, New York. She began her career as a chorus girl at the famous Cotton Club in Harlem, then moved to Broadway's first all-black stage revue, Shuffle Along, and later to featured vocalist with the Charlie Barnet big band.
She was twenty-three years old, and had arrived at the top of the business. A three-week booking at Barney Josephson's famous racially-integrated Café Society in New York's Greenwich Village turned into an engagement of seventeen months, during which time her sensational voice and dramatic intensity made her one of the most famous singers in America. At the end of the 1940s, she was earning $12,500 per week in Las Vegas, the highest fees paid to anyone up to that time.
She appeared in fifteen movies, Stormy Weather (1943) being most memorable. She played Glinda the Good [Witch] in the movie The Wiz (1978), and finally, in 1981, at age sixty-four and still a ravishing beauty, created her own one-woman show, The Lady and Her Music, a masterpiece which ran forty-two weeks in New York, then went to London, then into home video production.
Born in Harlem, New York, Henry George Belafonte (b. 1927) moved to Jamaica at age eight, then returned to New York at age thirteen. His first big break came in the film Bright Road, followed by a Broadway musical, Almanac. A recording contract with RCA in 1955 lifted him to a new level of fame.
With a pure baritone voice, marvelous diction, and striking handsome features, Harry Belafonte became a national sensation when RCA released "Jamaica Farewell", and "Banana Boat Song (Day-O)". From then on, he was considered a calypso specialist, but he continued to perform and record a wide variety of songs from the blues to Broadway show tunes.
He was also very active as an actor, record and film producer, and has received many honors, awards, and honorary degrees for his musical gifts and for his vigorous work for civil rights and humanitarian causes.
Nancy Wilson (b. 1937) was born in Chillicothe, Ohio, and sang in school and church as a child. She went on tour with the Rusty Bryant jazz group at age nineteen. Jazz giant Cannonball Adderly heard her, and got her a recording contract with Capitol Records. They moved her from jazz to pop, and her career took off.
She brings a jazz musician's sensibilities to pop music, and gives every text a bittersweet, soulful reading. Her treatment of "Guess Who I Saw Today" is an absolute masterpiece of dramatic suspense.
She has a gift for storytelling, and frequently sings the verse to a song in a conversational manner, before settling into the beat-oriented refrain. As a theatrical device it works every time. "You Can Have Him" and "Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe" are on one or more of her fifty-three albums which encompass standards, Broadway show tunes, blues, and jazz.
In the mid-sixties, she had her own television show during which she established herself as a top-quality professional in every way. Certain aspects of Nancy Wilson's style can be heard in the recordings of Regina Belle, Anita Baker, and Whitney Houston.
Before the days of rock, there were several groups that performed the standard tunes of the day, sometimes providing their own instrumental accompaniment, but often just adding their voices to an already established band. These ensembles, mostly trios and quartets, paved the way to the future.
The Golden Gate Quartet
In the 1930s and 1940s, one of the most successful black groups was a gospel-pop crossover quartet from Virginia. Co-leaders Willie Johnson and William Langford called their special style "jubilee" singing, a term that had also been used for spirituals back in the late 1800s.
They began recording for Victor Records in 1937, and appeared in John Hammond's famous "Spirituals to Swing" concert at Carnegie Hall in 1938. They signed with Columbia Records in 1941, and were in the movies Star Spangled Rhythm, Hollywood Canteen, and Hit Parade of 1943 (Erlewine 1991, 414).
Their 1938 version of "Stormy Weather" is an early example of what later came to be called doo-wop. Several of the famous Motown groups seem to have copied the musical style and stage mannerisms of the Golden Gate Quartet.
The Ink Spots
Jerry Daniels formed the Ink Spots in 1934 with Charles Fuqua, Ivory Watson, and Orville "Hoppy" Jones. When they returned from England after their first tour, Bill Kenny replaced Daniels, and they began to establish their signature style – an opening chorus with Kenny in a lovely high falsetto, followed by Hoppy Jones' dramatic recitation in a rich, resonant, baritone voice, and then a four-part conclusion to the tune.
Legend has it that the group got its name during a conference in their New York manager's office when an overturned inkwell spattered a blotter with ink spots (Shaw 1986, 183).
"If I Didn't Care" (1939) put them into orbit, and they appeared with Glenn Miller at the New York Paramount Theater. They soon became a featured attraction at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. For a while they were so much in demand that after their show at the Apollo, they would race downtown to do a late show at the Famous Door, a jazz club on 52nd Street. To get through the Manhattan traffic, they rented an ambulance and crew (Shaw 1986, 183).
Among their memorable hits were "We Three (My Echo, My Shadow, and Me)", "Do I Worry", and "Java Jive" in 1940; "I'm Making Believe" and "Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall", with guest Ella Fitzgerald, in 1944; "The Gypsy" and "To Each His Own" in 1946; and "For Sentimental Reasons" in 1947. Their beautiful 1939 treatment of "My Prayer" inspired the Platters to do a similar version in 1956.
In 1954, the original Ink Spots broke up, and, since then, there have been over 100 other groups calling themselves the Ink Spots, with no connection to the original group or rights to the name, touring both in America and in Europe.
The Mills Brothers
As famous as the Ink Spots, well into the 1950s, were the Mills Brothers from Piqua, Ohio. Their father, John Mills, Sr., a barber and concert singer, got them started early. Donald was just ten years old, Harry twelve, Herbert thirteen, and John Jr. fifteen when they landed a job on radio station WLW in Cincinnati (Ewen 1977, 284).
John Jr. died at age twenty-three in 1936, and John Sr. filled in until his retirement in 1956, after which the group continued on as a trio with a guitar accompanist.
Imitating instruments by cupping their hands over their mouths, the Mills Brothers developed a unique and appealing style. After their first giant hits, "Tiger Rag" and "Nobody's Sweetheart" in 1931, they went on to record more than one thousand songs over the next forty years.
Most of their million-selling records were made in the 1940s and 1950s – "Paper Doll" (1943), "You Always Hurt the One You Love" (1944), "Lazy River" and "'Till Then" (1946), "I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm" (1949), and "Glow Worm" and "Be My Life's Companion" (1952). They had a modest hit in 1958 when they covered the Silhouettes' "Get a Job". The Mills Brothers' last pop hit was "Cab Driver" in 1968. Their recording of "Daddy's Little Girl" has become a perennial father-daughter dance favorite for weddings.
Major stars of radio, recordings, and film, the Mills Brothers, the Ink Spots, and the Golden Gate Quartet established that special genre, the black male quarter, and opened the door to the future for all the doo-wop groups soon to appear in American pop music history.
The Boswell Sisters
In the early days of radio, the Boswell Sisters – Connee, Martha and Helvetia – made themselves a household name in the South singing pop songs on a New Orleans radio station. Their purity of intonation and their bluesy, infectious, swinging harmonies established the model for several later female trios (Erlewine 1992, 313).
Brunswick Records signed them in the 1930s, and they were backed by the famous Dorsey Brothers Band for many excellent recordings. "When I Take My Sugar to Tea" is their most famous trio number. They became regular guests on The Kraft Music Hall on NBC, appeared in the movies The Big Broadcast of 1932, Moulin Rouge, and Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round, and toured Great Britain in 1933 and again in 1935. They disbanded in 1936, and Connee went on to a distinguished solo career, even though she was confined to a wheelchair by childhood polio.
Connee Boswell was one of the first female pop singers to change notes and rhythms in her treatment of a song. This jazz technique created a different feeling from the stiff-music style so common up to that time. "They Can't Take That Away from Me", "I Cover the Waterfront", "That Old Feeling" were among the seventy-five million records she sold before her death in 1976.
The Andrews Sisters
The most popular female trio in the 1940s was comprised of sisters Patti, Maxine and LaVerne Andrews. They left Minneapolis, Minnesota, in their teens, and hit the big time in New York with a recording of "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen", a bouncy Yiddish folk song given new lyrics by Sammy Cahn.
They went on to record many more giant hits, to appear in a half dozen movies, and to become the favorite vocal group of the American military forces during World War II. They were frequent guests on the radio shows of Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and others because of their exuberant delivery and smart musical arrangements.
"Rhumboogie", "Booglie Wooglie Piggy", and "Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy" caught the boogie-woogie fever sweeping America in the 1940s. "Rum and Coca-Cola" (banned in Boston), "Pistol Packin' Mama", "I'll Be With You In Apple Blossom Time", and "The Beer Barrel Polka" earned the Andrews Sisters lasting fame and fortune.
The McGuire Sisters
The McGuire Sisters – Chris, Dotty and Phyllis – sang for local hometown functions in Middletown, Ohio, and moved up quickly when they appeared on the national radio show, Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts. Decca Records agent Milt Gabler signed them to a contract, and asked them to cover the Spaniels' "Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight" and the Moonglows' "Sincerely".
The group rapidly diversified and had great success with a series of film songs, including "Something's Gotta Give", the theme from the movie Picnic, and "Sugartime" (Hardy and Laing 1990, 508). Through the 1950s, they had seventeen Top 40 hits. Their nice blend and sweet style is remembered fondly by Americans who grew to maturity in the 1950s.
When Chris and Dotty retired, Phyllis continued as a solo artist, appearing regularly in Las Vegas clubs in the 1970s. She was Chicago mobster Sam Giancana's steady girlfriend for a long time, and when Sam was killed, she hired a twenty-four hour armed bodyguard for her personal safety and to watch over her enormous collection of priceless jewels.
THE HIT PARADE
From 1935 to 1959, the barometer of success for pop songs was a radio show called Your Hit Parade, sponsored by Lucky Strike cigarettes over the CBS network. On Saturday nights, the top ten pop songs were performed by a staff of professionals. Decisions as to which songs would appear were based on the number of performances the tunes had received that week over the radio, on jukeboxes, in sheet music and record sales, and among the dance bands around the country.
The exact method of calculation was a carefully guarded secret, and was the work of the accounting firm Price, Waterhouse and Co. Each Friday before the broadcast rehearsal, a Brinks armored truck collected information from several unidentified national locations and delivered it to the producers of the radio show. The top three tunes were not even disclosed even to the singers until the last possible moment (Ewen 1979, 295).
Many of the great pop standards appeared at one time or another on the show. The all-time hit, appearing thirty-three times on the show, ten times in the first position, was Irving Berlin's "White Christmas". Next, appearing thirty times, was "People Will Say We're In Love", from Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma. Finally, appearing twenty-nine times, was "Harbor Lights", a 1937 English pop song by Kennedy and Grosz which captured America's fancy in the 1940s.
There were many other fine pop singers and groups in the field, of course – Eddie Fisher, Vic Damone, Georgia Gibbs, Teresa Brewer, Johnny Mathis, Al Martino, Dick Haymes, and the King Sisters, the Four Aces, the Letterman, the Four Freshman, and hundreds more.
By the end of the 1960s, though, pop singing had changed beyond recognition. Your Hit Parade had already died a decade earlier because the traditional pop singers (Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, and the others) could not quite capture the style and spirit of the rock tunes that were sweeping the charts. Besides, the fans didn't want to hear anyone else sing their favorite rock star's new hit.
The industry had become so specialized and fragmented that there no longer was any single best pop tune of the week. Rather, we now had a best rock tune, a best country tune, a best soul tune, and soon a best heavy metal tune, a best disco tune, a best adult contemporary tune, etc.
The age of traditional pop standards was all but gone.It's not surprising, though.Songs are symbolic expressions of the dreams and desire of a nation, and America was a decidedly different nation in the 1960s than it had previously been, with changes in business, science, and education, and with the changes that occurred because of the civil rights and women's movements and the onset of the Vietnam War.There are still a few acts these days that fit in the traditional pop singer mold, though – Harry Connick, Jr., and Michael Bublé, for instance.