Rudy Vallée - Biography
By J Poet
Rudy Vallée was a groundbreaking bandleader, songwriter, comedian, actor and singer. His vocal technique, soft and intimate, was perfectly suited to the then new medium of radio, and spawned the style known as crooning. He was a major influence on Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Perry Como. He recorded for Bluebird, RCA, Columbia, Perfect, Melotone, Conqueror and Romeo and made a large number of short films performing his hit songs, making him a precursor of the video age.
Hubert Prior Vallée was born in Vermont, but grew up in Maine. He played clarinet and saxophone in high school, but when WWI broke out Vallée, then only 15, enlisted in the Navy using a false birth certificate. He was discovered and mustered out after 41 days of service. He moved to London to pursue his musical career and in 1924 played with the Savoy Havana Band. He came back to the States to attend Yale and got a degree in philosophy, starting his first band, Rudy Vallée and the Connecticut Yankees, at Yale in 1927. He started singing because nobody else would front the band. He sang through a megaphone because he wasn’t a belter, but his mellow, understated manner, boyish good looks and charismatic presence made him an instant sensation. Women often threw their underpants on the stage, a shockingly risqué thing to do in the late 20s. It was at Yale that Vallée acquired his nickname Rudy, because of his admiration of the then popular sax player Rudy Wiedoeft, the man who made the sax a popular jazz band instrument. (Late in his career, Wiedoeft actually played in Rudy Vallée’s band.)
In 1928 the band scored a residency at the Heigh-Ho Club In New York City. It was there he first used his trademark phrase “Heigh-Ho everybody.” They also made a few recordings for Columbia’s budget labels Harmony, Velvet Tone, and Diva. Shortly after starting the engagement, David Sarnoff created the NBC radio network and hired Vallée for a daily show broadcast live from the club. Vallée, who had an easy going manner and a voice perfectly suited to the radio, was then picked to headline The Fleischmann's Yeast Hour, better known at the time as The Rudy Vallée Show, the first entertainment variety show on prime time radio. It made him the first mass media star. Early songs with his band are collected on Vintage Vallée (200 Diamond Cut) and Dancing in the Moonlight (1996 Entertainers.)
In 1929 he made his first movie, The Vagabond Lover, and the movie’s title became another nickname. The film made his records of "Marie," "Honey," "Weary River” and his own composition “I'm Just a Vagabond Lover” enormous hits. The Rudy Vallée Show introduced dozens of major performers to the American audience including Burns & Allen, Edgar Bergen and Charley McCarthy, Jack Benny, and Kate Smith. He was a major star in the 30s headlining riotous sold out concerts and topping the charts with tunes like his own “Deep Night,” “Stein Song (The University of Maine)” which was #1 for more than two months in 1930, “Vieni, Vieni” sung in Italian, “If You Haven't Got a Girl,” “Old Man Harlem” which he wrote with Hoagy Carmichael, “Life Is Just A Bowl of Cherries,” and “The Drunkard Song” better known as “There Is a Tavern in the Town.” Compilations of his early hits include Heigh Ho Everybody, This Is Rudy Valée (1996 ASV UK), The Young Rudy Valée (1961 RCA), You’re Driving Me Crazy (2008 Harmonia Mundi) and Heigh Ho Everybody (2008 Collectables.)
When Vallée took a break from his radio show in 1936 to study law at Suffolk University Law School in Boston, he insisted that Louis Armstrong be hired to replace him, making Armstrong the first African American to headline a national radio show. Vallée made many successful films in the 30s and 40s including Gold Diggers in Paris, The Palm Beach Story, I Remember Mama, Unfaithfully Yours, So This Is New York, and The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer.
Vallée enlisted again during WWII, this time in the Coast Guard where he led the 11th district Coast Guard Band. They orchestra made many popular recordings and after the war he returned to radio and toured with his band. Rudy Valée and his Famous WW II Coast Guard Band (2000 RKO Unique UK) collects some of their records. His last major hit was a recording of “As Time Goes By” which he made in 1931. It was reissued to capitalize on the song’s use in Casablanca and was a major hit in 1946.
Although his popularity waned after WWII, he stayed active as a performer, actor and movie star. The film Gentlemen Marry Brunettes was a hit in 1955, especially in Europe. As he aged, his range lowered to a smooth baritone and he starred on Broadway as J. B. Biggley in How To Succeed in Business without Really Trying (RCA 1961.) The show ran for four years and he reprised the role in the 1967 film. He also appeared in The Night They Raided Minsky's as the narrator and Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood. He made many TV appearances in the 60s and 70s including Lord Marmaduke Fogg on Batman and put together a one-man show based on his life that toured into the 80s. He died in 1986 while watching TV at home with his wife Eleanor Norris. He was 84. Overview collections include As Time Goes By (1996 Varese Sarabande) and I'm Just a Vagabond Lover (1995 Delta.)