Vagabond Lover: Rudy Vallee

by Flapperjane

Copyright 2004 by Sarah Baker. All Rights Reserved.

Rudy Vallee.  Sarah Baker Collection.

Hubert Prior Vallee was born in Island Pond, Vermont, on July 28, 1901. Two years later his father Charles moved the family to Westbrook, Maine, where he owned a drugstore. Vallee’s mother Katherine was an accomplished violinist and singer, and encouraged her three children to pursue music. When little Hubert was four years old, Katherine taught him to play the snare drums to relieve his constant earaches.

The Vallees were brought up with a strict Yankee work ethic, while encouraged to develop their musical talents as much as possible. Hubert played in his junior high school band and held many part time jobs as he grew up. His first job was as soda jerk in the family drugstore—but it didn’t last long. Hubert lost his temper with a fellow clerk who mixed a soda incorrectly, and Charles took the other boy’s side. Hubert promptly quit and found work in the local movie theater. He first played accompaniment for the silent films before moving on to projectionist. This experience left him with a lifelong love for cinema. “My idea of perfect happiness in life was to be the manager of a theater, who not only selected the films to be shown, but could sit and watch them all day.”[i]

During this time, Vallee moved from drums to clarinet and saxophone. He had difficulty reading music but could play a tune by ear after only hearing it a few times. Vallee was nicknamed “Rudy” for his idolization of saxophonist Rudy Wiedoft, whom he referred to as a “sax god.”

In 1917, tired of school and eager for adventure, Vallee lied about his age and enlisted in the Navy. In later years, Vallee described the endless menial chores he performed in the hopes of being promoted to officer. When he learned he would never earn a promotion because he had no college education, he begged Charles to get him out of the Navy. It took some string pulling, but since Vallee had lied about his age, he was released with an honorable discharge.

Vallee began his college career at the University of Maine, for which he cherished a lifelong affinity. While still a freshman, Vallee learned their famous drinking song, “The Stein Song.” Years later, Vallee introduced a quicker version on the Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour and it became an instant hit. Vallee then recorded it for RCA Victor and it sold 20 million copies worldwide. It is the only college song in history to make the Hit Parade. It even increased enrollment at U Maine by ten percent during the lean Depression years.

Vallee moved to Yale his sophomore year and soon found his element as a trendsetter and Big Man on Campus. He led the school band, The Yale Collegians. He made the raccoon coat a must for every well dressed collegian attending a football game, and the Yale sweater a trendy fashion statement. Vallee also created a new arrangement of “The Whiffenpoof Song,” and recorded and broadcast it in the 1930s, just as he had “The Stein Song.” However, the Yale Glee Club was mortally offended by what they felt was a crass commercialization of their song.  Though Vallee turned his royalties over to Yale, they were rejected. This bitter feud continued until Vallee’s death nearly fifty years later.

Vallee graduated from Yale with a BA in Philosophy and no job prospects. He tried joining other bands without success, before forming his own band, the Yale Collegians (later the Connecticut Yankees). The Connecticut Yankees landed a plum gig as the house band for the tony Heigh-Ho Club on East 53rd Street in New York City.

The Connecticut Yankees had a very distinctive, sweet sound. Comprised of drums, two violins, saxophone, two clarinets, piano, string bass, and banjo, they had no “hot” brass section and Vallee did not use “jazzy” arrangements. Originally one of the violinists was set to be the vocalist, but the club manager hated his voice. Terrified of losing the gig, Vallee subbed in one night as vocalist, singing in a soft, laid-back manner through the megaphone he used to amplify his sax. He was a sensation. His distinctive style became known as “crooning” and, when he became a radio star, spawned many imitators. 

The Connecticut Yankees got their first crack at radio when the Heigh-Ho Club arranged to have their sets broadcast by local radio station WABC. Their first broadcast was February 1928. Since the club could not afford a proper emcee, Vallee announced the band himself—a privilege he would insist upon from then on. His greeting, “Heigh-ho, everybody, this is Rudy Vallee…” and his sign-off, “Heigh-ho, until the next time,” while the band played “Down the Field,” soon became famous.

In the fall of 1928, Vallee’s show moved to station WOR. A perfectionist by personality with that Yankee work ethic, Vallee carefully planned each set using a typewriter and duplicating machine, ensuring the band would not play the same song more than once per week. He took unpublished songs, songs that no other band would know and which the public had never heard, and made them hits: “Deep Night,” “Vagabond Lover,” “Sweetheart of My Dreams,” and “My Time is Your Time” (which became the band’s signature tune). The Yankees practiced diligently under Vallee’s leadership and developed into a smooth, polished ensemble with clockwork precision. Vallee always admitted their success had come from years of hard work, “our popularity was a result of a steady hammering through the microphone.”[ii]

Their hard work paid off with an offer from NBC and the Fleischmann Yeast Company for a one hour broadcast, once a week for fifty-two weeks, at several thousand dollars per show. The Fleischmann Yeast Hour featuring Rudy Vallee and his Connecticut Yankees was a nationwide hit, propelling the band to fame and fortune. Vallee used the show as a way to introduce fresh talent to the airwaves, and was responsible for the radio debuts of such celebrities as Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Alice Faye, June Haver, and Fred Astaire.

Vallee also signed a contract with RCA Victor and sold millions of records during the 1930s. His popularity kept the sheet music industry alive during the darkest years of the Depression.

With talking pictures making a huge hit across the nation, it was only natural that radio’s biggest star would be called to Hollywood. When the call came, Vallee and the band received a royal welcome from the Hollywood elite. Vallee’s first film, The Vagabond Lover (1929), was highly popular and launched Vallee’s career as a film star. His memorable films include The Palm Beach Story (1942), The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947), and I Remember Mama (1948). When WWII broke out, Vallee took a break from his career and conducted the Coast Guard Band, which he referred to as “the best I ever directed.”

Vallee’s crooning voice, charm, and all-American good looks made him an idol. Decades before Sinatra, Vallee was mobbed by screaming teenagers. He delighted in being the man-about-town and spent a great deal of his life trying to find the perfect woman. When writing his autobiography, Let the Chips Fall, in the 1960s, he compiled a list of former sweethearts which reads like a roster of Hollywood “It” Girls: Lupe Velez, Delores del Rio, Ginger Rogers, Joan Crawford, Gene Tierney, Hedy Lamarr, and nearly fifty others. Vallee finally found his soul mate with third wife Eleanor Norris, whom he married in 1946.

Vallee continued making films and live appearances after the war, and made a huge Broadway comeback in 1962, playing J. B. Biggley in How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. The play was a smash success and ran for two years. Vallee recreated his role in the 1967 film as well.

In the twilight of his years, Vallee’s Yankee work ethic kept spurring him on. He kept a wide correspondence with celebrities and fans; he entertained lavishly at Silver Tip, his home in California; and he played benefit concerts for many veterans’ hospitals and charitable organizations. Vallee passed away July 3, 1986, his beloved Eleanor at his side. As they watched the Independence Day celebrations on television, Vallee’s last words were, “Wouldn’t it be fun to be there? You know how I love a party.”[iii]  

 

To get the dope on Rudy Vallee, click here.

 

[i] Vallee, Rudy. Vagabond Dreams Come True. New York, E.P. Dutton and Co., 1930, page 143.

[ii] Ibid., page 111.

[iii] Vallee, Eleanor.  My Vagabond Lover.  Dallas: Taylor Publishing, 1996, page 200.