There is a tradition in American show business of the male singer being on some level a “bad boy”. Long before rock and roll, part of the image of the heart-throb was that he was a bit of a blade, a rake, a devil. There’d be a suggestion in his attitude of race tracks, of night clubs, of late hours. If he came calling, your parents would not approve at first; they’d give their grudging consent “once they got to know him.” This was the image of most of them: Al Jolson, Harry Richman, Harry Fox, and later Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett, etc. etc, and on into the rock era, when parents would only give consent over their dead body.
That’s one vision of romance. There used to be another. The alternate vision is long dead, and was on its way to dying out long before rock and roll put the last bullet in its temple. That is the image represented by personae like Nelson Eddy’s characters, Sir Galahad, and Superman. A legacy of opera and operetta, this vision posits a lover who would never actually have sex with a woman: good-looking, virile and morally pure. Dudley Do-Right. Such was the persona, too, of Arthur Tracy.
Tracy had a musical childhood. He started singing at the age of six. His father taught him voice and violin, he also took professional lessons, and in his spare time he listened to Caruso records. An early booking at the Logan Theatre in his native Philadelphia lasted 11 months. Such success brought him to New York, where he started out in the amateur night at Keith’s 14th Street. He won so much that the management made him M.C. so the audience wouldn’t think the competition was rigged. A few years of club dates and vaudeville followed, then roles in the Shubert operettas Blossom Time and The Student Prince.
In 1931, Frank Pepper of the act Salt and Pepper hooked him up with a scout a CBS. His voice was such a hit, he was booked for his own program, which was called “The Street Singer of the Air.” The persona had been invented specifically for the program, but it became his identity for all subsequent performances, based on his radio fame. In live performances the big show stopper was “Marta”, his radio theme song. News of “jazz” never reached this man; he knew just what to do with “Danny Boy”. Ladies thrilled to his rich, baritone voice, and his old-fashioned sentimentality, which seemed plucked straight from the mountains of Switzerland—just like the posies in a bouquet. He accompanied himself on the accordion.
And yet, audiences went wild. Police had to be called in to control the mobs. He was a star of radio and vaudeville in the early 30s playing the RKO and Loew’s circuits and setting records at the Palace and the Hippodrome. In 1935, he moved to England, where they understood his kind of performance even better. He stayed there six years. After this, he was never a star on the old scale, but he continued working for the next fifty years.
In 1982, his old rendering of “Pennies from Heaven” was used in the eponymous Steve Martin film. And shortly before his death in 1997, Tracy sang “I Love You Truly” at the wedding of New York disc jockey Rich Conaty. This was easily one of the last dates played by an original vaudevillian.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville and performers like Arthur Tracy, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold