The Art of the Crooner

Frank Sinatra said he wasn't one, Johnny Mathis definitely is one and Robbie Williams has been known to dabble. Welcome to the Art of the Crooner.

You might be surprised to learn that the King of Rock 'n' Roll, Elvis Presley was also partial to crooning, just listen to hits like Love Me Tender and Are You Lonesome Tonight. So what do we mean when we talk about crooning? When did it all start and is anybody still at it today? 

Let's go back to 1927. Over thirty years before Elvis was wondering how we doing, America was enjoying a new level of affluence. The radio waves were hungry for new talent and Charles Hart, one of the very first crooners was only too happy to oblige with a string of hits, including his own version of Are You Lonesome Tonight.

Until now popular singers like Al Jolson had to project their voices all the way to the back row of the theatre. Like opera singers, if they wanted to be heard, they had no choice but to sing very loudly.

But a new invention was about to change popular music forever - the microphone. Microphones responded best when the voice was recorded at very close range. Radio and phonographs didn't need the big booming voices of vaudeville or the concert hall, they preferred a more intimate, natural style.

But as with all new technology, there were concerns. Worried about the rise of machines in the home, America's March King, John Sousa said, "When a mother can turn on the phonograph, will she croon her baby to slumber with sweet lullabies, or will the infant be put to sleep by machinery?"

Nevertheless, most people jumped at the chance to hear recorded music in their own homes. Suddenly there was a huge demand for singers with a more friendly, romantic style, people like Al Bowlly, Art Gillham and a Yale graduate with a sweet, and for the time, sexy voice -  Rudy Valle. He was the first swooner-crooner, melting the hearts of every American woman within ten feet of a radio. So much so that at his vaudeville shows mounted police had to be called in to control the screaming crowds. The trailer for his first film, The Vagabond Lover, said, "Men Hate Him! Women Love Him!"

Radio executives told the writers on Tin Pan Alley that a range of no more than five melody notes around the middle of the keyboard gave the best sound on radio. And so, a new type of song and a new type of singing was born. Crooning meant sentimental ballads, easy on the ear. And thanks to the limitations of radio phonics, they were simple enough for the casual listener at home to sing-along to. All make possible by the microphone. 

Decades before Colonel Tom Parker was managing Elvis, he was working as a publicist for Gene Austin - the first million-selling crooner. He had a huge hit with Aileen Stanley singing When My Sugar Walks Down the Street, a song that went on to be recorded by some of the greatest ever crooners - Johnny Mathis, Nat 'King' Cole, The Ink Spots and Judy Garland, which does beg the question, can women be crooners?

Indeed they can! Since crooning simply means singing a gentle ballad, they were every bit as good as the their male contemporaries. Ella Fitzgerald, for example, was surely one of the finest female singers ever, but not someone we tend to think of as a crooner. She was a remarkable improvisor and really made her name as a jazz singer. Even when singing a dreamy ballad she couldn't resist the urge to play around a little bit with the melody. It's beautiful but compare Ella's style with someone like Doris Day who was generally happy to leave the melody alone. And what about Patti Page? She was the best-selling female artist of the 1950s going on to sell over 100 million records. She certainly wasn't a jazz singer. But who cared? There were plenty of people who just wanted to hear a beautiful voice without any of the twiddly bits. Her forte was love songs and easy-listening country music. 

Patti Page

Patti Page

Despite the success of Patti Page, Doris Day and Ella Fitzgerald, crooning does seem to have been largely the domain of the male singers. In his day, there was non bigger, than Bing Crosby. Unlike the early crooners before him, Crosby played no instrument, he couldn't read a note of music and didn't like rehearsing. His whole manner was as relaxed as his singing. He insisted he was nothing special, saying anyone who liked to sing in the kitchen or the shower could sound just like him. And maybe that was part of the appeal. Unlike Rudy Valle, who was just a bit too gorgeous for his own good, everyone could identify with Bing Crosby.

Not everyone was in fan of this new easy style of singing. In 1932 Cardinal O'Connell of Boston called crooning, “a degenerate form of singing” and The New York Singing Teachers Association said, "Crooning corrupts the minds and ideals of the younger generation." The New York Times was quick to try and reassure its readers, telling them that crooning was "a style begging to go out of fashion," and that, "crooners will soon go the way of tandem bicycles, mah jongg and midget golf."

At the same time a record by Dick Robinson, called 'Crosby, Columbo & Vallee', called upon all men to fight the crooner coming into their homes on the radio. “Bachelors and married men” they said, must “stick together" and fight these "public enemies" who are "stealing all our blondes" and "breaking up our happy homes." 

Despite their popularity, some performers, such as Russ Columbo, took exception to the crooning label. In one interview Frank Sinatra said that he did not consider himself or Bing Crosby "crooners".

But crooners they were. Maybe Sinatra thought the term was bit limiting. It was after all describing only part of what he could do. When he turned his hand to a rousing bluesy number like That's Life he was, of course, no longer crooning. Much in the same way as when Elvis sang Viva Las Vegas or June Christy was scatting her way through How High The Moon. Like many artistes, they enjoyed crossing over into different genres. 

Dean Martin was a crooner, who enjoyed country music and proved the two styles could work a little magic of their own. With hits like Gentle on My Mind he wasn't the first crooner to enjoy country music. Bing Crosby had a million selling hit with his 1940 rendition of 'San Antonio Rose'. He was a huge influence on Perry Como who himself went on to have his own country style hits with 'Deep in the Heart of Texas', 'Don't Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes' and Kris Kristofferson's 'For The Good Times'.

Perry Como

Perry Como

Making an equally rich sound, but with a distinctly British flavour, was the man Sinatra described as the "only Limey that can sing" Matt Monro. His voice has been described as "the most perfect baritone in the business". You won't find me arguing with that. He made everything he sang sound, well, easy.

Nat King Cole didn't have much of a range, nor did he have the big, rich tone of people like Vic Damone or Englebert Humperdinck and though he was a gifted jazz pianist, he kept his singing pretty straight. But what a voice. Who knows, maybe it was something to do with all the cigarettes he smoked, but he had a musky quality to his voice that produced an almost hypnotic effect. He took the whole idea of creating an intimate mood onto another level. You don't listen to Nat King Cole and say "Wow!" you listen to Nat King Cole and say “ahh”. It's a voice that simply wouldn't have been heard without the aid of a microphone. 

Let's not forget Mel Torme, a jazz singer, yes, but he could certainly croon with the best of them. As wonderful as his voice was, for me it didn't have quite the heart of some of his contemporaries, it was almost too “perfect”. Listen to how he sings a little bit of PS I Love You and compare that to Sinatra's version. When Sinatra sang a ballad you really felt he knew what he was singing about. He ached along with you. He seemed less bothered about making the perfect sound and more concerned with making you feel something.

In the end that's what these singers do best. They make take our hands and guide us through life's ups and downs. We listen and feel better knowing someone else understands.

In the early 60s the word crooning was slowly replaced by the less old fashioned sounding 'easy listening'. With the growth of specialist radio stations, so many of the great crooners continued to enjoy success late in their careers: Andy Williams, Bobby Darin, Dick Haymes and Tony Bennett of course who's still going strong.

And though styles have continued to change, there's still a huge demand for gentle ballads, sung softly into the microphone.

The 1950s posed a real challenge to the art of the crooner. Teenagers, television and the rise of Rock n Roll left the kings of easy listening holding on for dear life. For the most part they carried on regardless. It was a case of Don't Panic, Carry on Crooning. Nat King Cole firming reminding his audience at The Sands in 1960, “Mr Cole Won't Rock n Rock”.   

These days people like Barry Manilow, Madeleine Peyroux, Harry Connick Jr., Michael Bublé, Neil Hannon and Norah Jones are all keeping intimate art of ballad singing alive. Just like Crosby before them, they caress the microphone and share their secrets, just for us.

When Norah Jones softly tells you to "Come Away with Me", you don't have to think twice.

The Art of the Crooner by Gary Williams (c) 2016. Part of Radio 2's 50s Pop Up.