I first became aware of singer James Melton (1904-61) as a member of The Revelers, a jazz age vocal group who were popular on records, on radio, in big time vaudeville, and at least one Vitaphone short. Operatically trained, Melton went where the work was, resulting in an eclectic career that embraced both the Metropolitan Opera and The Milton Berle Show.
Raised on a Florida farm, Melton’s vocal talents was discovered in high school, and he was able to study music at several Southern colleges, and with prestigious private tutors. He played sax in college jazz bands, and later sang with groups like The Revelers, the Singing Sophomores, and Roxy’s Gang, organized by Roxy Rothafel. A 1932 solo concert at Town Hall in New York proved a turning point. He toured with George Gershwin in 1934, and was heard on national radio programs like that of Jack Benny, The Firestone Hour, Sealtest Sunday Night Party, and dozens of others. His vocal talents were showcased in several movie shorts from 1932 to 1934, leading to parts in features like Stars over Broadway (1935) with Jane Froman and Pat O’Brien, Sing Me a Love Song (1936) with Patricia Ellis and Hugh Herbert, and Melody for Two (1938) with Ellis and Marie Wilson. In 1938 he began starring with regional opera companies, leading to his becoming part of the company at the Metropolitan between 1942 through 1950. During this period, he was seen in the film Ziegfeld Follies (1946), and heard on radio programs like The Bell Telephone Hour and Harvest of Stars.
In 1951 he got his own TV variety program The Ford Festival, a.k.a. The James Melton Show, which lasted one season. Throughout the ’50s he also appeared on The Milton Berle Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Ken Murray Show, etc, and sang in night clubs. Melton was also known for collecting antique cars. His private collection included over 125 of them, and he displayed them in a museum he call James Melton’s Autorama.
Melton’s early death at age 57 in 1961 is one reason this once nationally famous may not be bettered remembered today. He was probably best known in his own time as a radio star; of all the major 20th century mass pop culture fiefdoms, that one is probably the most forgotten, and is only now just begun to trickle back into the consciousness of some, thanks to technology. Even Melton’s car collection was sold off. His legacy has been dispersed.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, incubator of stars like James Melton, please to consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.
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