Old-time Radio Primer: C Stands for Crooner

Well, I am mad about music this weekend, or something remotely resembling it. After fifteen years of going without while living in the Eurotrash-resisting US, I finally got another hit of it last spring. The Eurovision Song Contest, I mean, the spectacle (or cultural war) in whose battles have fought the likes of Celine Dion, Olivia Newton-John, Abba, Lulu, Cliff Richards, Katrina and the Waves, and whoever it was first to belt out “Volare.” Thursday night’s semi-finals in Athens were predictably vulgar—short on fabric and long on fanfare, feuds and fanaticism. Gone are the days in which a song could be sold without a dance, in which lyrics could catch the ear while the eye got a rest, on in which a chart-topper could have legs without the exposure of gams (assets that rarely hurt but failed Kate Ryan in her attempt to step up for Belgium).

So, my Norman Corwin-inspired Old-time Radio Primer, a lexical expedition of yesterday’s airwaves that got underway with definitions of “audience” and broadcastellan will pay tribute today to a craze that is as closely associated with radio as the set itself; to the vocal chords that, if Marion Davies’s experience in Going Hollywood is to be believed, ensnared a generation, made youngsters rebel and schoolmarm’s swoon; in short, the crooners and their tunes.

The crooners seized the advantage of the sonic close-up, the proximity to the microphone that can lend force to a whisper, a subtlety and intimacy hard to achieve in a crowded auditorium. They performed for an unprecedented multitude, but, coming home into parlor or boudoir, could always create the illusion of reaching everyone separately, singly, and, if imagined so by the listener, secretly as well.

Having no voice to match the tones of Rudy Vallee or Bing Crosby—whose “Temptation” still sends me—I will salute the much-mocked crooner with some slight but only slightly irreverent verse I penned for the occasion:

Well-oiled enough to wrestle
And steady enough to grind
It finds a niche to nestle
In the ever so obstinate mind.

Well-groomed enough for cocktails
And flashy enough to blind
It sticks when other crock fails
In the ever so obstinate mind. 

Well-heeled enough to dally
Obliging enough to bind:
The crooner and his sally
On the ever so obstinate mind. 

The crooner and his bally-
of the
ever so obstinate
match-that-your-mind-has met
(more? how about a bet?) kind.

With the notable exception of Mr. Vallee, crooners quickly came to resent the term, insisting, like Crosby, to be billed or labeled otherwise (a simple “baritone” would do). After all, as much as they were adored by the radio listeners of the 1930s, who fantasized about American idols like Vallee, their “Vagabond Lover,” the crooners were widely dismissed or ridiculed by the press, whose writers might have felt threatened by these newly emerging voices, vocal Valentinos whose low, lavender tones seemed to have so much more erotic sway than can be generated by the most aggressive and boisterous Winchellean journalese.

To the chauvinists of the tabloids, radio had opened a Pandora’s voice box, and what poured out into the air to impregnate the imagination of millions was a provokingly and intimidatingly potent seed, strongly suggesting that such sounds could be mightier than the pen.

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