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The Sensuous Song of the Croon

by Lenny Kaye

Pub Date: Aug. 10th, 2004
ISBN: 0-679-46308-9
Publisher: Villard

Told with feverish scat, the story of crooners in the days when vaudeville transformed itself into radio and the movies learned to talk, features a bio of Russ Columbo backed by Bing Crosby, Rudy Vallée, and an all-star supporting cast.

Music writer Kaye offers a hyperactive text, smooth as pomade, slick as showbiz. Fast-talking, over the top, he spills all he knows in extravagant novelistic style, often shifting tempo from past tense to present and devising Winchell-esque portmanteaus (“revusicals” in “glitteration”). It’s a bravura performance, and Kaye is adroit about music. A “thrush” tries to “fit a square peg into the song’s round voice box,” he notes, and a tenor holds his voice “stiffly in the neck, starched, like a collar.” There are fleeting snapshots of Rhythm Boy Crosby, the onetime drunk-tank inhabitant, whistling through the bridges; and cheerleader Vallée, the sometime vagabond lover, singing through his megaphone. There are Betty Boop and Flo Ziegfeld, Al Jolson and Paul Whiteman, Harry Richman, Benny Goodman, Freddy Chopin, Moran and Mack. Wandering throughout is Columbo, at the Brooklyn Paramount competing with Crosby playing Broadway’s Paramount; Columbo manipulated by Con, his con-artist manager; Columbo and the love of his life, Carole Lombard; Columbo suffering “death’s aloneliness,” silenced at 26, his music later recalled in a commemorative album by Tiny Tim. It’s true showbiz nostalgia, vamping and syncopated, punctuated regularly with really short sentences. Rim shots. A word. It’s a symphony of yellowed Variety clips, old sheet music, recording-studio notes, and movie dialogue. What might have been a lot of moonshine coming over a mountain of words ultimately works like a loving riff in a June moon canoe down a stream of consciousness.

Not a pedestrian stroll past the crooner’s art, but frequently a pleasurable dance around some real pop culture. (20 b&w photos)