Music Training Necessary .
It may come as a shock to some of my readers to learn that I consider careful and painstaking study and practice the only w ay ever to become a successful dance-style singer. Even if the beginner is gifted with a” natural” voice, and can speak clearly and distinctly, he is a very long way from being able to join a dance band as a singer.
Out of all the hundreds of aspirants I have seen or who have written to me, not one per cent knew the first thing about music. Even less had the ability to sing ,at sight, a number which they had never previously seen. Sight-reading is absolutely essential for the ambitious singer, as is an all-round knowledge of the elements of music.
Without it, no singer will ever get beyond the drawing-room stage. Certainly they will stand no chance amid the fierce competition of professionalism. This may be disquieting news to many who had hoped that this book would contain a few hints which, having been hastily read, would assure success as a singer.
But I’m afraid it has got to be faced that without a practical knowledge of music, and in particular the ability to sight-read, the would-be crooner is so heavily handicapped as to be a non-starter. But do not let this be too discouraging. All the musical knowledge you will need will be given to you within these pages and in a form, I hope, which will make it easy and pleasant to assimilate.
But there is no use skipping or skimping it. If your ambition goes no further than to sing at occasional concerts, or to amuse yourself and a small circle of friends, then perhaps you need not practice quite so hard. But even in these circumstances the knowledge will be an enormous help. I have no doubt that there are many instrumentalists who will read this book, both professional and semi-pro. These, no doubt, are congratulating themselves on already having a knowledge of the rudiments of music, which they may well do. But do not let them think, however, that there is no necessity for them to learn further. Many musicians can read at sight almost any instrumental music that is put before them, are quite at sea when it comes to vocal reading.
The first subject to be dealt with, then, is music. If I were teaching in person instead of through the medium of the printed word, I would regard voice culture as being the first consideration. But this latter calls for examples in written music, and without a knowledge of at least the rudiments of notation how is the student to be able to understand them ?
Why Sing At All ?
It is platitudinous to say that singing is the most common form of self-expression. Everyone, from a Cabinet Minister in his bath ,to the housewife in her kitchen, gives vent to pleasurable feeling in snatches of song. That the singing may be out of tune, harsh, raucous, tuneless, or even unrecognisable as such, does not matter a great deal. It is the desire to express happiness in song which is the point.
Of course, people want to sing for lots of other reasons. Eliminating the bathtub-and-kitchen vocalists, however, would-be singers are actuated usually by one of two motives.
The first is the desire to make money the second is vanity. Usually it is a combination of both. I do not include the man who is content to sing to an audience consisting only of himself only the man (or woman) who ” feels ” he (or she) can sing.
Every writer on popular music in the lay Press is deluged with letters from would-be crooners . “My friends tell me that I am much better than most singers one hears on the air” . ” Although I have had no experience I would like to become the singer of one of the big dance bands”. ” Please will you hear me sing, as I am convinced I can surprise you.” And so on and so on.
All these people fall into the money-or-vanity class. Mostly with the latter predominating to such an extent that they are convinced that the former will come easily. Never was there a graver error.
The way of the crooner is hard. Because of the very fact that every other person is convinced that he or she is a Heaven-sent singer, the market is more than overcrowded. Obviously, too, the vast majority are useless, and serve only to excite still further derision for the much derided art of microphone singing.
There is hardly a person, of either sex, or almost any age, who cannot “sing” in some sort of way. Fortunately, a lot of these people have neither the time nor the inclination to inflict their efforts on others. But the remainder have, apparently, both. And it is to these that this book is addressed. I hope it will save them a lot of trouble, and provide them with at least a few signposts in the wilderness of doubt and ignorance in which most of them wander.
Do not be offended if my attitude seems a little harsh, or my remarks over-cynical. But, really, out of every hundred who are convinced that they can sing, ninety are frankly dreadful, six passable, three good, and one likely to develop into anything worth while.
You, dear reader, may be just that -one. Indeed you will be lacking in self-confidence unless you think so.
But do, I beg you, temper your self-confidence with self-criticism. Take it from me that unless you have had some form of coaching or advice you cannot possibly avoid making dozens of mistakes. Even if you are gifted with a ” natural ” voice, it must be cultivated, you know.
It is the object of this book to draw attention to these possible faults ; not to ” teach you to sing.” The very fact that you are reading it suggests (unless mere idle curiosity is the reason) that you are interested in Modern Style Singing, and that you have got a secret idea tucked away somewhere, that, given the chance, you could outshine the most crooning crooner that ever irritated the irascible” ears of all the old gentlemen who write to the papers about ” emasculated moaning.”
I do not claim that the reading of this book’ will turn you into a first-class dance-style singer, but, with every modesty, I do suggest that if you follow carefully all that I have written you will at least be improved.
The Effect of the Microphone
It is perhaps unnecessary to explain that a microphone picks up and amplifies the slightest sound. It can make the footfall of a fly sound like a hundred-weight of coal being dropped. It can distort out of all recognition. Or it can merely reproduce at a distance .
Whether it was used first by the gramophone studios or by the broadcasters I do not know, nor does it matter much. To all intents and purposes both worlds of ” reproduced ” entertainment discovered its possibilities at once.
In the old days, gramophone recording was done by the horn method. That is, all the sound was directed into one or more large horns. A considerable amount of effort was necessary to cut the ” wax ” at all, and even then half the sound that went into the horn never went on to the wax, and even less came out of the finished record.
It was necessary, therefore, for singers to sing with considerable vigour if they were to record at all. Anything in the nature of a whisper wouldn’t have ” cut.”
Then came the microphone, and everything was changed.
Singers, instrumentalists, and recording artists of all kinds were urged to ” take it easy.” The danger became not under-recording but the reverse . The ” mike ”was ” throttled down ” and the artist asked to stand back a little, please.
The robust tenors, whose redness of face was in direct ratio to their height of note, became something of a problem.
The microphone has an unpleasant habit of ” blasting,” which is a jarring, shivering sound, when the volume forced into it is too much for the delicate amplifying apparatus.
Thus it was that, at first, until they grew to understand it better, the recorders found difficulty in coping with the vocalists who were ignorant of the requirements of King Mike.
And the singers, having been taught to sing in a certain way, found it very difficult to do otherwise. Their training had always been
based upon the requirements of filling large halls and theatres . Volume, especially on top notes, had too often been their fetish.
This does not mean to say, of course, that all ” legitimate ” singers are bellowers, or that none of them can control their voices to softness. But it was just that their style of singing was, in those early days, un-microphonic.
Then somebody discovered that even if one sang quite softly the ” mike ” picked it up with just as much strength as if one shouted at it. And with an infinitely more pleasant effect.
Vocalists explored this new idea of “‘ whispering-vocalism.” It intrigued some of them ; others were just contemptuous of ” this travesty of singing.”
But those who tried it found that they could put their mouths to within an inch or two of the microphone and sing so quietly as to be inaudible a yard away. Yet their voices reproduced as strongly as if they had sung at the top of their voices and used every effort.
And in this absence of effort they found several virtues. Firstly, that it suited the microphone so well ; secondly, that it gave a new timbre to their voices by making audible harmonics and upper partials which had never previously been heard ; thirdly, that it enabled them to enunciate with far greater clarity than before ; fourthly, that it gave to their voices, when reproduced, an almost stereoscopic effect ; fifthly, that it eliminated most of the danger of blasting ; and, sixthly, that it was far easier work and was something new, anyway.
All of which called into being a new kind of singer. Some of the more versatile of the ” straight ” singers studied this new method, mastered it, and adapted it to their own ends.
Those who couldn’t or wouldn’t were eventually catered for by the growing technique of the recording or broadcasting engineers, and continued to sneer at ” these whispering vocalists.”
What is ” Crooning ” ?
MOST things that are new come in for a lot of abuse. Especially if they are new art forms. Even to call them ” art forms ” is enough to rouse the ire of the thoroughly hard-bitten diehards.
And of all the many innovations of the past few years ” crooning ” has had directed at it the most derision and contempt.
Before we go any further with this book I would like to deal with this attitude, because until the reader really understands the reasons for it, and the answer to it, he is likely to suffer from some kind of inferiority complex to feel that the ambition to become a singer in the modern microphone style is something shameful and unmanly.
The very word ‘ microphone ‘ supplies the whole answer. It is this simple electrical device which gave rise to the whole art of ” crooning,” brought into being hosts of new artists, and immeasurably widened the scope of the entertainment profession.
Let us pause for a moment to examine this word ” crooning.” It is a horrible expression, and I use it only because there seems to be nothing else . It is associated with all the unpleasant, smeary, wobbling vocalisms that one ever heard. It is perhaps unnecessary to say that modern microphone singing, even of popular dance tunes, need not be like that.
Different, dictionaries give varying definitions, although none of them is up-to-date enough to define it as “quiet singing into a microphone, in the modern dance-band style.” Their efforts vary between “a low moaning sound, as of animals in pain” to “the soft singing of a mother to her child.”
Neither of these is very complimentary;. but at least the former supplied a new joke for hard-up humourists ! It is generally accepted as being a sign of weakness, I am well aware, to offer a defence when no specific attack has been made, but nevertheless there have been so many general attacks on this type of singing, and so few defences of it, that I feel justified in entering the lists.
The microphone brought into being, and some-times into very prominent being, a whole host of singers who otherwise would never have been heard. There were many performers whose untrained voices, although naturally sweet and pleasing, were not strong enough for the public platform. To these the microphone was more than kind and gave them the power, with the turn of a switch, to drown the most brazen-lunged quasi-operatic singer who ever shook the rafters.
This angered the diehards. ” A poor kind of singer is this,” they said scornfully, ” who has to call in artificial aids before he can be heard ! ”
But that seems to me to be a poor argument. It is as logical to say ” A poor kind of a star is that which cannot be seen without a telescope ! ”
Confronted with that simile, the anti-crooner usually changes his point of attack. ” How can you call these people singers,” he insists, ” if they have never been taught to sing, know nothing about voice production, and less about diction ? “
To which the answer is that if a crooner produces a sound which is unpleasing, and distorts his words beyond recognition, he will not be a success, even as a crooner.
Most crooners are untrained in the first principles of singing and enunciation ; more’s the pity. But it must be admitted.
But whose is the fault ? Who is it who has the knowledge to teach these ” natural singers ” (for that is what they are) where and how to breathe, how to pronounce their consonants and vowels, how to phrase, how to sing in their best register, how to control their vibrato, reduce their portamento, and free them of all the annoying tricks which ignorance and inexperience bring ?
The legitimate singers and teachers, of course. But they will not. ” No,” they say, ” you learn to sing our way or not at all ! ”
And so the crooner continues in his errors, sneered at by just the very people who could help him most. There is no possible way for a singer to learn to sing in the modern microphone style. There is no school which caters for it, no recognised teachers, the musical colleges are just con-temptuous, and this, so far as I know, is the first book which has ever been written on the subject.
Is it any wonder, then, that most crooners are dreadful ? Yes, I readily admit it. But then, are not most ” straight ” singers, judged by the highest standards in their own sphere, also dreadful ? Is all music bad because a bad café band plays it badly ? Indeed no. There are crooners who produce beautiful sounds with their voices. Surely this is undeniable ? Their singing may not be academic, but it is often intensely pleasing, and unquestionably gives pleasure to millions.
What more can be asked of singing than that ?
………. Back in London I started immediately to form my new recording band. First of all I had to find someone who knew the best musicians and could help me by suggesting the kind of boys I needed. I’d heard of a very fine arranger who was a pianist named Lew Stone, and a top drummer called Bill Harty. I got together with them and, after they had agreed to join me, they told me of a vocalist who had been out of work for quite some considerable time and was finding it pretty difficult to make both ends meet. I thought that if this singer was all that good why wasn’t he working. But Lew and Bill pressed the point and, at last, I asked this man to come along and give me an audition. When he arrived, I noticed he made a good appearance – most necessary, of course – and he had a pleasing personality. Lew Stone accompanied him at the piano and when he started to sing I was sure he was the person I was looking for. His name was Al Bowlly. I soon made up the band with the best musicians I could find and we started turning out records for Decca by the dozen.
We recorded at least twice a week, making four titles at each session and that was the very beginning of the hundreds and hundreds of discs I made during my career. The new band was an instant hit on records and, sure enough, I have never seen such publicity as Decca gave me. My photographs and records were in the windows of nearly every record shop, we had the full front page of the Daily Mail, and our records were played by the BBC almost every time you listened and also on the Continent. Yes, we were on our way. One of the very first things we did was a recording of The Peanut Vendor. It was just one of the many sides Al Bowlly did with that first band, which started him on the road to being one of the most famous of all British vocalists.
The Peanut Vendor was recorded in February 1931. So popular were our records becoming that one day I was asked by a man who was building a new club in the West End to come to see him. His name was Mr Upson and he owned the Dolcis Shoe Company. He told me the new club was going to be the smartest thing in London and would be exclusive. He said he had found when he went to other clubs they were generally too crowded to dance and that was why he was opening his own club so that he could provide a bit more comfort. He was going to call this new night spot The Monseigneur. It was right in the heart of Piccadilly. Would I be interested in opening with my band? He made it sound so worthwhile with the amount of money he offered and the fact that I wanted some place to be seen by the public apart from just making records, I had no hesitation in accepting. There would be only a few short weeks before the opening and there were one or two changes I intended making in the band. I engaged the brass section from the Billy Cotton Band and when it was time for the opening, the personnel in the band were Al Bowlly (vocalist), Lew Stone (piano), Bill Harty (drums), Don Stuteley (bass), Syd Buckman, Nat Gonella (trumpets), Joe Ferri (trombone), Ernest Rine, Jim Easton, Harry Berly (saxophones).
Opening night was really something! The Prince of Wales, the Duke of Kent, King Alfonso (of Spain), they were all there and the room was decorated so beautifully. All the walls were dark blue and draped with red silk and a large painting of Monseigneur hung near the cocktail bar – very French and in the most excellent taste.
When thinking of Al, I can’t help recalling that when we finished our first week and he received his first cheque , he was so happy to have had the chance of working again after so many ups and downs that to show his gratitude, he invited Dorothea and me to a little Italian restaurant in Soho . We went along with him and he ordered a very special dish he thought we would both like and during the course of this delicious chicken entrée, I thought I heard a most peculiar kind of sound. After much detective work I discovered Al was chewing on a chicken bone. I queried this and he said: ‘Boss’ (he always called me Boss), `haven’t you ever tried chewing chicken bones? They’re the best part and very good for the teeth.’ Well, I knew Al had beautiful white teeth but I never realized how he kept them looking that way.
Things were swinging along nicely for the Fox band, then fate took a hand yet again,
when Roy was taken ill with pleurisy in November 1931. He tried to struggle on but he was forced to take his doctor’s advice to go to Switzerland in order to recuperate, living in a small village high in the mountains. With the Billy Cotton affair no doubt still fresh in his mind, Roy was well aware of what could happen when the leader of a band went absent so he kept the band running at the Monseigneur by handing the baton over to Lew Stone as a temporary measure. This was fine with the rest of the band , for as well as being a most proficient musician, Lew was a very popular chap on and off the bandstand. Although Roy Fox took all the limelight through fronting the band, it is generally acknowledged that Lew Stone was really the musical brains behind the success of the outfit with his arranging skills.
It would seem that apart from musical prowess, to possess a strong constitution could be a good asset to a dance band musician in the 1930s. Akin to many of his colleagues, when the band at the Monseigneur had played the last waltz, usually around 2A.M , Nat would pop into a late club and sit in on an impromptu jazz session, all for free.
The Bag O’Nails Club off Regent Street was one of his favourite haunts and on occasion the sessions could go on until five in the morning. When he had blown all the jazz out of his system Nat would stagger bleary-eyed out of the club just in time to see another day dawning. He would then nip into one of Joe Lyons’ establishments for a breakfast of bacon, eggs and a cup of tea.
Rather similar to the coffee stall in Brighton, Lyons also served as a meeting place for the “night people”, that is folk such as nightclub staff and entertainers, musicians, and ladies of doubtful virtue.
It was during one of his early morning breakfasts that Nat dropped his knife and fork for a few moments to take on the role of Cupid. Unfortunately, the arrow in this particular case went way off target. It happened when one of Nat’s great pals in the band, Al Bowlly, joined him for a cup of coffee. As they were sipping and chatting, a good looking girl in the shape of Freda Roberts came into the restaurant, and just one look at her immediately bowled Al over, he could not take his eyes off of her.
As it happened, Nat knew Freda from the Bag O’Nails where she worked as a hostess. After prompting from Al, he introduced him to Freda, whereupon the sexual chemistry began flowing like water from a tap. At that time, Al Bowlly had the world at his feet and could have had his pick from any member of the opposite sex that he so desired. Knowing Al’s reputation with the ladies, Nat put it down as just another of the handsome singer’s casual affairs. To his amazement, and horror, the couple were married within a week. “Oh my gawd!” thought Nat. “What have I done?” His worst fears were realized, the marriage lasted only a few weeks. It appeared that as far as Freda was concerned, old habits were hard to break, and when she said that she would like to keep her friends after she was married, she meant men friends.