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Rudy Vallée , The First Crooner

One of the most popular singers of the 20th century actually intended to become a small-town pharmacist in Maine, but the saxophone led Rudy Vallée in a different direction. Born in 1901, Hubert Prior Vallée formed a band when he was a student at the University of Maine. He—and his sax—transferred to Yale in 1922, and by luck, Vallée made contact with Jack Cipriano and Bill Bolton, alums and musicians who owned the best society orchestra in the area.

Vallée was hired as first saxophonist and headed a band unit that helped pay his way through Yale. He also got free meals for playing in the student orchestra that provided dinner music in the dining hall. At Yale, Vallée majored in Spanish with the intention of seeking his fortune in the music business in South America, but in 1924 he ventured east and took a year off to play at the Savoy Hotel in London to finance the rest of his education.

Returning his junior year, he was at last able to afford a raccoon coat and a room in the Memorial Quadrangle. Vallée joined the Yale Collegians band on a summer vaudeville tour, and in his senior year, he led the Yale Band and developed a style of singing into a small megaphone that enabled listeners to hear what he called “my little nasal, plaintive voice.”

Within a year of graduating in 1927, Vallée was leading a new band, also named the Yale Collegians, at the exclusive Heigh-Ho Club in Manhattan. His star rose when a small radio station, WABC, began to broadcast from the club, and Vallée was asked to serve as announcer. He put to good use the classroom training he had received “by absorbing the incomparable style of the great Billy Phelps,” and he began every show with his trademark phrase, “Heigh-ho everybody, this is Rudy Vallée speaking.” Vallée ’s ability to sing fluently in Spanish as well as French and Italian added to his romantic persona.

In 1929 he went to Hollywood to star in The Vagabond Lover, which became his nickname. He returned to a new nightclub in New York, the Villa Vallée , which later became the Copacabana. Throughout the 1930s, millions of fans enjoyed his movies, recordings, and the radio shows he hosted.

The recordings of “the Dean of the Crooners” included some of the most popular songs of the era, among them his theme song, “My Time is Your Time,” as well as the University of Maine “Stein Song,” and, of course, “The Whiffenpoof Song.” In 1932, Vallée introduced a new radio show format, the variety hour, and the top stars of the day appeared on his programs. Bob Hope and Edgar Bergen debuted with Vallée , who also showcased African American performers such as Bill Robinson and Fats Waller.

In World War II, Vallée entered the U.S. Coast Guard and toured as a band leader. He then returned to radio, broadcasting with Monty Woolley, Class of 1911 and former Dramat coach. By the 1950s, his musical style was no longer in fashion, but he had a surprising comeback in the 1960s in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, the hit musical that included a mock college marching song, “Grand Old Ivy.”

In Vagabond Dreams Come True, the first of his three autobiographies, Vallée titled one chapter “Did College Help Me?” After citing the importance of the Yale faculty and the social contacts he made, the first crooner gave credit to the well-balanced curriculum that aided him, “not only in my musical work, but in my general life.” While English, economics, history, music, and Spanish were helpful, of key importance to this consummate entertainer was “the study of psychology.”  the end


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