27 November 2006

The Soul of an Adventuress

Prolific though ordinary popular vocalists of the 1920's, when remembered... if at all, usually lurk in the shadows cast by others in their profession who arrived somewhat earlier or later, or those who have been granted the mighty title of "Jazz Legend," either by fans or by record companies seeking a marketing hook.

Then too, there are those singers who would unknowingly catapult themselves to fame in the far distant future by choosing to retire early in their career, or just happening to unexpectedly die --- both mundane acts that can, with the passage of time, be looked upon as something spectacular or profound for no good reason.

Or, there's that most revered of all career moves: one could kill themselves with alcohol and/or drugs ---and if they somehow smash their car into a tree or wall in the process, so much the better grist for the mill.

And then there are singers who had the desire, need, talent and popularity required to slowly work their way through the cavalcade of changes in music and technology that would spring up throughout the early 1900's --- each one presenting a challenge of some sort, a hurdle to either overcome or to be used as a marker for the end of a career.

Vaughn DeLeath is, at least for me, the undiluted and largely unadorned essence of the 1920's female vocalist. Some, and indeed most do, opt for the likes of the vastly talented Ruth Etting or Annette Hanshaw, but you always know what you're going to get with these two singers before you hear any of their recordings for the first time --- and that's precisely why I find them dull.

Not so with DeLeath, who never really developed or locked herself into one single performing style, whether intentional on her part or not. Effortlessly switching between Torch Singer, Child, Red Hot Momma, The Loving Wife, The Heartbroken Sweetheart, Every body's Mother and Every one's Mammy, to Concert Singer and then to Female Crooner --- she simply became whatever type of woman was needed for the song, and then she'd give it her all --- and often then some. For that reason, before listening to a VDL recording for the first time, there's just no telling whom you'll encounter --- and I deem that something wonderful.

I won't detail DeLeath's life or recording career, as all that information can be readily found elsewhere on the Internet, but a few basic facts are in order. Born in 1894 (Mount Pulaski, Illinois), she began her vocal performing career as the Great War ended. In the oft-told tale, she was called upon by radio pioneer Lee De Forrest in 1920 to vocalize for his early "wireless telephone" experiments, thus gaining the title of "First Lady of Radio," a medium she would remain close to until her death in 1943. In addition to a few Broadway roles in the mid-1920's, she also participated in early television experiments that would include a twice weekly telecast for CBS in 1931 --- although exactly who was tuning in, or was able to, isn't clear.

What is clear, however, is that DeLeath is most easily and best encountered via the many, many (many!) 78rpm recordings she produced throughout the 1920's, on just about every major (and not-so-major) label imaginable.

Here's Vaughn DeLeath in late January of 1927, at her best --- or very nearly so, performing "Crazy Words, Crazy Tune." It's interesting to note that the song's catch-phrase, "Vo-doh-de-oh-doh" was precisely that: a short lived catch phrase that initially amused and then irritated the public. It's ironic then, that the phrase would be forever after trotted out to evoke the decade when, in fact, it mercifully flamed up and burnt away all within the space of a few months. The sort of song that allowed each individual performer to play with the lyrics as they liked, Vaughn DeLeath injects an already topical song with additional topical references --- putting the listener squarely within the time frame in which it was recorded.

Infrequently mentioned in the press, except in ads heralding new record releases or radio broadcasts, here's an example of the latter. In this radio schedule for 8 October 1928, she's listed as appearing on the "Eskimos" (Clicquot Club Eskimos, I'm guessing) show airing on WGV, a Schenectady NY radio station (lower right column) that, an hour later, is mysteriously listed as offering a "television transmission."

A few months earlier, a syndicated column geared to the ladies mentions VDL's passion for collecting earrings --- a topic that would pop up in similar columns throughout the 20's and 30's, and undoubtedly a real passion for the singer. "It is her ambition to acquire the largest and most representative collection of ear ornaments outside a museum. She wrote somebody 'It's really remarkable what earrings will do to one's personality. A pair of long slender black ornaments, almost long enough to touch the shoulder, will transform a Sunday school teacher into a woman with the soul of an adventuress'."

That "Sunday school teacher with the soul of an adventuress" may have well been herself, for either she kept her personal life extraordinarily private or, most likely, she led a typically normal and uneventful one. Then too, there's no getting away from the fact that DeLeath was quite rotund and the whole business with the earrings strikes me as the sort of passion a woman like herself might nurture --- her focus being placed on delicate, fragile and decorative items that can be changed at whim whereas her figure wasn't and couldn't. A reach perhaps, but then again maybe not. Whatever the case, this mention of her hobby can be thought of as a deceptively simple "human touch" worth remembering.

From September of 1927, an equally deceptively simple tune that, at the last moment, throws the listener an unexpected curve. If, while listening, you find it all too impossibly saccharine to continue, I urge you to hold out --- at least once, for that last verse.

Exceptionally busy throughout 1928 and 1929, the arrival of film musicals offered up a wealth of new recording material and DeLeath jumped right in, most often successfully --- and sometimes less so.

From Paramount's 1929 Chorus Girl On a College Campus themed musical, "Sweetie," comes VDL's rendition of "He's So Unusual." Deftly recorded by Helen Kane (who was also featured in the film,) I prefer DeLeath's version for a number of reasons, not the least of which is her ability to make it quite clear that the young man in question isn't sweetie material for her or, for that matter, any other woman.

DeLeath had her share of really bad recordings to be sure, and while the tune "Singing in the Bathtub" from SHOW OF SHOWS (WB-1929) would seem a natural for her, this is a misfire from the first groove. Thinly orchestrated with an arrangement seemingly done on the fly, DeLeath just doesn't know what to do with herself here and pulls out every trick in the book in an attempt to get it go somewhere, which it never does. Worst of all, she switches the line "a ring around the bathtub is a rainbow to me" into "a rainbow from me," putting a different and nauseating spin on the title event.

Although DeLeath recorded two superb versions of tunes from the first all-Technicolor film musical ON WITH THE SHOW (WB-1929), "Am I Blue?" and "Birmingham Bertha" which have been widely circulated and issued on CD (imperfectly, I believe --with overly heavy noise reduction virtually eliminating the original upper sonics and creating a weird gurgling effect in the process) she would also partake in a double-sided Edison "Needle Cut" electric recording of a medley from the same film, joining other vocalists as "The Edison All Star Ensemble." Not surprisingly, she's given the two same tunes to handle here too as part of the medley --- which she does expertly.

As the 1930's dawned like a cold dark hangover after the frivolity of the 1920's, change was afoot everywhere. In the world explored in these pages, the musical film was being shunned, singing styles had altered to reflect the mood of the day, Edison's recording days were finished, and vaudeville was in it's death throes. Radio work kept DeLeath busily and gainfully employed, and she was as yet still enough of a personality to permit a syndicated column such as this one from June of 1931, entitled "How I Make My Husband Happy," with the husband in question being one Livingston (aka Leo) Geer, an artist. It all reads like prefabricated fluff, which it probably was.

Sketchy though its outlook was, vaudeville is also where we frequently find DeLeath throughout the early and mid-1930's, small-time bookings mostly, such as at the Upstate New York "State Theater," in February of 1934.

By 1938, newspaper writers (and readers) weren't content with just content exclusively about marriage balms and earring collections, and DeLeath couldn't have been overly pleased with one of many articles such as this one, that mentions that both she and Kate Smith "have not permitted corpulence to bar them from the spotlight," not unlike the later mention of a beauty pageant winner who lost her legs in an auto accident but found success by modeling for magazine covers, presumably only from the waist up.

Five years after making her artist husband happy in 1931, DeLeath apparently opted to make herself happy instead and changed partners in 1936, marrying "orchestra leader" Bernard Rosenbloom. An additional five years down the road, however, the match-up of vocalist and musician would fall away too, as mentioned here in a 1941 news item.

Around the time of her 1936 marriage to Mr. Rosenbloom, DeLeath was still a regular on the radio dial. Here, in a fragment from one of very few surviving transcription discs, DeLeath is introduced by an announcer and then sings "With All My Heart," a tune from the 1935 Broadway show "Her Master's Voice" which was filmed by Paramount in 1936 with Edward Everett Horton and Peggy Conklin as stars. At first, DeLeath seems a world away from the vibrant, rollicking voice of a few years earlier --- but just as you think she's given up the ghost, she opens up that gloriously mellow voice full throttle for the song's finish.

Vaughn DeLeath - Radio Transcription Disc Excerpt

The unhappy news began filtering through wire services on 27 May 1943, prefaced by "teaser" items such as this one, variations of which still are used today and invariably prompt a collective "Uh-oh!" from sympathetic readers.

In Buffalo, New York where she was appearing on Red Cross charity broadcasts, Vaughn DeLeath expired in her room at the city's Statler Hotel, aged 49 --- with a few years shaved off for print.

As with everything, what once was eventually departs and traces that it left behind are either discarded, picked apart, forgotten or destroyed. A mere two months after DeLeath's death and we find no happy reminiscences of the performer or her music, but instead we do find this unseemly news item sent out on the news wire:

No mention, mercifully perhaps, of what became of a lifetime's worth of scrapbooks, mementos and records --- that is, if she retained any. Surely though, a few? Likewise, we'll never know what became of the beloved collection of ear ornaments that once belonged to "a Sunday school teacher with the soul of an adventuress." For all we know, they could still be adorning the ears of women in Bridgeport, Connecticut --- and beyond, today. I like to think so.

To my mind, one of DeLeath's most effective recordings is the one that follows, "Lonely Lights Along the Shore," which dates from 1927. It's bound to hit home at least to some degree for most of you, and while the sonics are a bit dodgy, it's Vaughn DeLeath at her purest, unadorned best.



Anonymous said...

(1) WGV may, in fact, be WGY, the station owned by General Electric, which had major R&D facilities in Schen. During the late 1920s and early 1930s, there were numerous experiments from WGY involving simulcasts of television and radio programmes. See "Please Stand By: A Prehistory of Television."

(2) I recently ran across a version of "Blue Skies" done by DeLeath, which can only be described as as soft and enchanting as a fluffy white cloud appearing in same. VdL at her best.

Kevin K. said...

Yeesh! That final line of "Tin Pan Parade" came out of nowhere! And that was a year before "Sonny Boy," wasn't it?

Great, great site, by the way. I found you via Greenbriar, and will check in every day.