Crosby, Vallee, Columbo. They are their own trinity. Bing is the universal dad. Rudy the misbehaving son. That leaves Russ. The holy ghost.
New York, 1931: The curtain falls on the Ziegfeld Follies, a victim of the rising popularity of talking pictures; Rudy Vallee, radio’s wildly popular “Vagabond Lover,” worries that increasingly sophisticated microphones and Hollywood-minted heartthrobs will make his megaphone-amplified vocals passé; a pugnacious, hard-drinking baritone named Bing Crosby cleans up his act, preparing to take America by storm on CBS radio; and handsome twenty-three-year-old Russ Columbo, a former violinist dating a Ziegfeld girl, makes his debut on NBC radio.
In an America poised to take its dominant place on the world stage, the Crooner points the way forward. With his heated core of sex appeal wrapped in well-tailored layers of cool distance and cigarette smoke, the Crooner brings something new to the country’s self-image: this is no Yankee-Doodle Dandy, but a suave and seductive figure, sophisticated as any European, flush with youthful strength and energy. It’s all there in his voice, his croon: a soft, intimate, sensual form of singing that combines jazz sensibilities with the smooth and danceable rhythms of the Big Band sound and Swing.
But who would embody the new archetype? Vallee crooned too soon. That left Crosby and Columbo to duel it out over the airwaves. Hailed as “The Romeo of Radio” and “The Valentino of Song,” romantically linked to actresses Pola Negri and Carole Lombard, Columbo is all but forgotten today, his limitless promise cut short in a tragic and controversial accident as he stood on the verge of winning the stardom that Crosby, his great rival, would soon achieve.
In this impressionistic tour-de-force–a musical history combining the drama of a bestselling novel and a soundtrack from the Golden Age of Broadway and Hollywood–master musician and critic Lenny Kaye trains a spotlight on Columbo while crooning a love song to an earlier America–a pitch-perfect evocation of one of the most romantic, creatively exuberant periods of our past–an era whose influence still burns brightly in the music and popular culture of today.
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Lenny Kaye is an acclaimed music writer whose work has appeared in Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, Creem, Hit Parader, and Crawdaddy! He has been a guitarist for poet-rocker Patti Smith since her band's inception thirty years ago and serves on the nominating committee for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He is the co-author of Waylon. He lives in New York.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
I'm cruising along the interstate when I first hear his story. Predawn. We are introduced randomly over the airwaves, radio on the far side of the dial. The hindsight of fate. I could've been on another station, or tuned out; he might have lived.
There are the letters to his mother. His association with Carole. The dark, husky grain of his voice; a nostalgia for a moment I have never known firsthand, have yet to experience. He intrigues me. The in-trigger.
"I can't forget the night I met you . . ."
Memory's overwhelming obsession. "It's all I'm dreaming of."
All. What every woman wants.
You c-all it. Heads or tails.
Is there a choice?
He's a "baritone with orchestra." Buh-buh-buh baritone. The way of the crooner.
He lives for you. There is no existence without your presence. "I know my heart won't beat again / Until we meet again . . ." Auf Wiedersehen. My dear.
Take a photo. It outlives you. A shot: set and shoot. A match sparking on a cocked hammer. A pair, as dueling pistols go. The complete set.
They're meant for close firing. One on one. Not random protection, or the anonymous carnage of war. This is an intimately twinned weapon, each meant only for the other.
The you of duel. The total absorption; the ultimate mating. Me, you. You, me.
Which is to be who. We could even trade places, across this table that separates us. That is our intention, to penetrate and become you, in much the same way this light becomes you, or that color becomes you. It is the becoming that interests us now.
This could be a smoky nightclub at 3:00 a.m., the Brown Derby or Danny's Hideaway, band choogling in the background, he leaning across the table to ignite her cigarette with a silver lighter. A flared glint. The pinpoint reflection from the lighter intersects the white light flash of a photographer from Screenland snapping an exclusive photo. For a moment they're framed by what seems a backlit silver screen, the blinding bulb glare of looking into the mouth of a klieg. A still projected. Neither notices because they're in full linger, time braked until its slowing motion is combusted by the nova-beamed flame edging them each toward their spotlit other.
Dual. He could feel their bloods roaring as he opened his eyes on her. When he sang. He played the gypsy instrument and came from the hot countries; there were three o's in his given name. He had darkened in the gibraltar sun of Hollywood, even as he had lightened under New York's noon moon.
He spoke the romance of Latin, the language of chimera; as in Latin Lover. The Romeo of Song: wherefore art the next Valentino?
The knowing Ah before . . . but I Call It Love; and then the ba-dah-dahs.
The croon. A most sensual singing.
He is his song titles, his movie themes. Every chapter can have its own heading. They all fit.
Broadway thru a Keyhole. Peeping through a boudoir door with a moon-shaped microphone clutched in his right hand. Got the key to the lock, hovering, ready to insert. His eyebrows are swept back, a comet's tail parting only to let the eye's vein pass through the dark shadow of his upper lids.
But Russ Columbo isn't really looking at anything. He's listening; he's hearing the song come to mind and he's following its melody, humming it in the back of his throat, hoping to tune it clearer. The human radio tube. Pure vacuum. To bring it to the surface so he can sing it.
A pinkie ring. A tuxedo and bow tie. Hair a smooth black sheen brushing backward. He is sleek, like a seal coat.
Broadway thru a Keyhole is Winchell's baby, a film based on his tell-all tattle. To Russ, it's a trade-off for column inches and a chance to sing for, ironically, his old friends in Hollywood. Back to the movies.
A comeback; that's what the papers like to say. Knocked down but picked himself up off the canvas. Been bounced along the ropes but keeps on bobbing and weaving.
He's come back different, though. He has already lived the life he's playing, perched on a penthouse atop the times squared, and knows his part well. He's The Singer in what The New York Sun calls "an old-fashioned gangster, chorus girl, nightclub talkie of the sort that came along when the boom and the gangster films were at their height."
It wasn't just that the picture had a familiar ring, even in November 1933 when Al Capone was nearly on the ferry to Alcatraz. For Russ, it was all too true. Change the setting and everybody's story had a certain constancy. Like his co-star, the lovely Miss Cummings. Read the headlines then; read the deadlines now. The same old lusts and mayhems, murders and trials and freaks of nature and random horrors, strikes, kidnappings, executions, grisly details and center-spread photos, mixed with a lot of everyday life and advertisements.
He lives here, now, back in Californ-I-A. Moved home with the folks. Dad still runs the construction company. Mama isn't well these days. Short of breath, chest pains. And when in Romama . . .
The family together again, as they all once had been in those last few years before the Great War, in Philadelphia. He was the baby of the Colombos, the dozenth child, and one day there he was, all of cinque, Ruggiero Eugenio di Rudolpho sawing away on the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, by the grace of the Lord Jesus and his blessed Mother, playing his violin as if his heart could break.
He loved the instrument. Cradling it under his chin, his wrist quivering to shudder the note just so, drawing out the tone's tensile stretch and making it vanish into air in an imperceptible moment between silence and awareness, he can feel it radiate as he plays. He is forever in pursuit of closing the gap between himself and the violin, to become its dark mahogany wood and shell-like curlicues, sliding up the spine of its neck. A violation: even as he leans in to sing, he can feel himself begin to resemble the violin, waist cinched in (by his cummerbund, no doubt), chest expanding like the fired arch-top of the violin's body, each register of his voice-the tenor, the ethereal soprano, the resonant and smoky bottom-become a different string. His bow the vocal chord.
Even his singing demeanor echoes the violin; head inclined, eyes naturally downcast. His voice gliding along the fingerboard, fingers dancing like a Follies production. This is the era of the chorus girl, the cigarette gal, the taxi and fan dancer.
And for Russ, it is also the lonely college coed; the bored secretary; the middle daughter who couldn't afford to leave home because she had been told that's where she had to stay until marriage, and then after, another house she couldn't afford to leave; the girls who lost loves and those who left them behind; girls who wore the latest fashions, girls who read the fan magazines and placed them tenderly in their hope chests, girls who spun (as in spinsters) and girls who pirouetted before their mirrors and girls giggling and girls fighting back tears and girls sitting on front stoops and porches and in living rooms and bedrooms waiting for a stray signal from the NBC network (at 11:00 p.m. EST) to begin their dreaming.
"The Romeo of Song." Nothing too fast, mind you, all tempos decelerated for slow and sinuous dancing. A music for whispering in ears. For sliding out the slots in the Bakelite, a glowing dial and the warm, crackling static hum of electricity.
Russ didn't know about electric instruments. They hadn't been invented yet, mere rumors and prototypes, if you didn't count the microphone. And he did, because it allowed him to sing softly. To mouth each word as it came out of his mouth, to send it just toward you, you, just the way you always wanted to hear it, and experience it, how you always wished it would be, head back, eyes lidded, hand pressed inside your thigh, to reach that one moment of total real-time bliss in which something meaningful passes back and forth between your heart's flutter, to know how deep love can stick its tongue in your ear.
He knew what it was to have loved, and to have had love taken away. To let the public have their way with him. The morning-after slink from the bed, the knowledge that both he and they had got what they wanted. Fought to a draw. He had given up everything for what his life consisted of now, which to most people was still everything, especially in this time of Depression. He'd spit through more money than he'd ever expected to make, which was how it was supposed to be, since you were who people perceived you to be. You reached for the stars, and then became one. And then found out there were millions of them.
You had to shine brighter. Con Conrad, his manager, had shown him that, standing on the street corner at Broadway and Forty-sixth one fall afternoon two years ago. No way was he going to let Russ Columbo wait for twenty minutes in the rain after he'd just thrilled more than a thousand femme admirers at the Paramount Grill's afternoon milk-benefit, there at the behest of her royal selflessness Mrs. William Randolph Hearst. "More cream" was how they liked to boast at Borden's. That was Con's operandi. Maybe it was working. When Russ entered the café, he could sense the intake of breath, the room suddenly drained of oxygen. Chests heaved and tightened. He could hardly breathe. To exhale was to dare break the spell.
Outside, after the autographs and the shy squirm of the young ladies, it had begun to drizzle. As they waited, Conrad paced, fumed. He hated standing there for a cab that might never come. That was no way to treat Russ Columbo, "the biggest name on the radio," or himself, or the two publicity shysters with him, Paul Yawitz and Harry Sobol. He started walking briskly toward the West Side, to Scott & Reilly, dealers in Lincolns. He bought the "biggest damned car you've got," hired a chauffeur, and, fully liveried, glided off to their Central ...
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