Before the electronic microphone became commonplace in the 1920s, the one quality that was required of every professional singer in every musical genre was a talent for vocal projection—i.e., the ability to make oneself heard over one’s instrumental accompaniment in a live or a recorded performance. Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, for example—two of the greatest vocal stylists of the 20th century—probably would never have made their livings as singers had they been born just a decade or two earlier, when the ability to sing not just well but loudly was an absolute requirement. The man who paved the way for them and for every quietly emotive singer to follow was the first of the great crooners, Rudy Vallée—the first musical superstar to make a virtue of his relative vocal weakness. Born Hubert Prior Vallée in Island Pond, Vermont, on this day in 1901, Rudy Vallée was a transformative figure in 20th-century popular music and one of the most popular all-around entertainers of his day or any other.
Hubert Vallée became Rudy Vallée at the University of Maine, where his classmates began calling the young saxophone player “Rudy” in honor of the then-famous saxophonist Rudy Wiedoft, whose records Vallée played incessantly. After a two-year stint as a member of the house band at London’s Savoy Hotel in the mid-1920s, Vallée returned to the United States and matriculated at Yale, where he would earn a philosophy degree and form his first band. It was as bandleader of Rudy Vallée and the Connecticut Yankees that he would become a star, but only after taking over the singing duties from a departed vocalist in the late 1920s.
Vallée’s voice was a thin tenor that was barely audible from the stage without the help of an electric microphone or, when no microphone was available, his trademark handheld megaphone. Vallée’s good looks and suave demeanor brought legions of devoted female fans to his live appearances, however, and his soft voice proved a natural fit for the radio, which was then exploding in popularity. Vallée and his band signed their first recording contract in 1928, and Vallée was given his first radio show, The Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour, the following year.
On the strength of his radio shows and of low-price issues like “The Stein Song” (1930), which sold well even amid a recording industry-wide slump during the Great Depression, Vallée would be one of the most successful recording artists of the 1930s. His final hit record would come in 1943 with a reissue of his 1928 version of “As Time Goes By,” then popular due to the film Casablanca. Over the next four decades, however, Vallée would remain a fixture on television, in films and on Broadway, where his role in How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying marked a late-career triumph.
Born on this day in 1901, Rudy Vallée died in Hollywood, California, on July 3, 1986.