“heigh-ho, Everybody!”

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There’s no great mystery to the success saga of Rudy Vallée, although for some reason I still have a hell of a lot of trouble getting it across to the powers in show business who should know better. The lucky timing was the advent of radio, which few people wanted to take seriously at that time. But there were lots of bands performing on radio before I started, and they didn’t go anywhere to speak of. What the Yale Collegians offered from the very beginning was something different , a new sound that wasn’t only my singing solo, although most bands had a trio in those days. Actually, we would have had a trio if we had had a bass and a tenor.

Can you describe the difference?

It’s a little technical and maybe confusing to nonmusicians, but basically it consisted of playing only choruses, not arrangements as all the bands did, and of never playing two tunes in a row in the same key. I trained my band to follow signals that I gave with my right hand when it wasn’t creating notes on the saxophone. As we went into the next song, we would raise the key, and the subtle effect of these increasing and dynamic upward changes proved electric. I doubt if most of our listeners really understood the tingling effect this had on their spines and nervous systems.

Our radio shows were different in other ways, too. When we began, WABC couldn’t afford an announcer, and I leaped at the chance to run the whole show. I inherited a simple gift of speaking easily and fluently, and while the band played softly in the background, I’d introduce the next medley with little anecdotes about the songs and their composers. The result was very relaxing, it was entertaining, and, as it turned out, quite popular.

Were you at all surprised by your sudden rise to fame?

No, damn it. That’s one of the most pernicious myths about show business. As the letters poured in, only an idiot wouldn’t have realized that something terrific was going to happen. Certainly it was radio that made us famous almost overnight, and I’ve always credited our great success to the tremendous impact it had on its vast audience of millions who lived for it and loved it. What nobody wants to consider—and, I think, I get the impression it’s worse today—is the tremendous amount of hard work after one arrives! Ten years ago when I was in How to Succeed on Broadway, people kept talking about Rudy Vallée’s great comeback. Comeback, my ass! Prior to How to Succeed I had turned down an offer in 1951 to helm the Kraft TV show which Perry Como later accepted. I had recently appeared in six major films and had played in hotels and nightclubs thirty weeks a year and made numerous television appearances on major shows.

If you knew as a young man that you wanted to be an entertainer, why did you go to Yale?

A college degree was an awesome thing in those days. I enjoyed my freshman year at the University of Maine, but for a variety of reasons, including an unsuccessful love affair, I had decided to leave. But I couldn’t make up my mind whether to go on to Yale, as my folks hoped I would, or to transfer to a band school at Ithaca, New York. So I asked the advice of my idol, Rudy Wiedoeft, the great saxophonist, whose style I had adopted and whose first name—because I was constantly playing his records—had become my nickname. Wiedoeft said flatly that I could go to band school anytime, but a college education only came once.

There is a familiar photograph of you in a raccoon coat, as leader of the Tale Band in the fall of 1926, your senior year.

I worked my way through Yale, studying very hard. I was a Spanish major—in between my music jobs. For two years I got my meals free by playing with a student orchestra in the Yale dining hall. The dance five with whom I played at Yale had about three to five jobs a month. I still have vivid memories of the times I would get back to campus from these one-nighters in time to change my clothes and go to class. And then there were the weekend tea dances in hotels and country clubs from New York to Boston. Exhausting as it was, it was great experience. But how I managed to exist on so little sleep, I’ll never know.