Inside the Big Bands


1981, pp. 372-374

VAUGHN MONROE was one of the most romantic-looking leaders of the big band era. A large, handsome man with a great smile, he still managed to project a bashful, little boy image that appealed not only to the teen-agers of the mid-forties but also to their older sisters, their mothers and even their grandmothers.

The band itself was never brilliant, even though it improved greatly after its big-time debut at the Meadowbrook in the spring of 1941. In a review headed "Monroe More Impressive Than His Band, " I pointed out that:

"The Rapid Rise of Vaughn Monroe," or "A Press Agent's Dream," is certainly

the current phenomenon of dancebandom. Seldom has nay band come up so  quickly, and clicked so heavily with the audiences it has had to face.


The primary cause is obvious. For, despite all managerial push and tremendous pressure from press agents, the group would never have had a chance to score so brilliantly were it not for that one cause--Vaughn Monroe himself.


Here is a dynamic personality. It's around him, not his band, that the girls flock. It's when they hear his voice, not his band's playing, that they go girlishly ga-ga. His smile sends romantic, not musical, shivers down spines that are just beginning to harden. Here is the modern generation's Rudy Vallee. [a better and more modern comparison: he was the Robert Goulet of his day.]

The review found the band dull, except for a seventeen-year-old trumpet find named Bobby Nichols, a very good girl singer named Marylin Duke and a comic vocalist named Ziggy Talent. "But were it to stand strictly upon its own musical merits, chances are it never would have done better than remain a territorial favorite."

Vaughn's Band had been a smash hit in the Boston area when Willard Alexander brought it to New York to build it into a national attraction. Vaughn had been performing as quite a respectable trumpeter, an instrument on which he began to concentrate during the Depression, when lack of funds curtailed his operatic coaching and ambitions.

Vaughn's singing was always a bone of contention among those who heard it. The girls, of course, loved it. His coterie thought it was magnificent. But the critics, almost to a man, felt different. "He is a baritone who tries too often to sing bass with tenor accents," wrote Barry Ulanov. I was more caustic, pointing out that if Monroe would only open his mouth a little more, less of the sound would be forced to come out his nose.

My lack of appreciation of his singing (opera singers and even would-be-opera singers take their voices quite seriously) made it difficult for me to get to know Monroe more than perfunctorily. This, I was told by those close to him, was my loss, and I believe they were probably right. Barbara Hodgkins once described him, after an interview, as "one of the most polite, pleasant and peaceful citizens in the music business--a very normal person in a very crazy world."

In that interview, Monroe revealed his bandleading philosophy. "The band business," he stated, "isn't an artistic thing. It's a business. I could name four or five bands that aren't doing very well today because they don't do what people ask for. I can't feel sorry for them. You've got to justify what you're doing; you can't fool a promoter more than once or twice. And you've got to be right in there working all the time."

"In there working all the time" is precisely what Vaughn did after he brought his band to New York. He must have known that the group wasn't as great as his press agents made it out to be, for during the first six months he made eight important personnel changes. He also hired for a time a fine lead trombonist and arranger. His name: Ray Conniff.

Much of the band's musical emphasis was on singing--not only on Vaughn's, which continued to improve, but also on that of his groups--the Murphy Sisters, the Moonmaids ("Monroe" and "Moonmaid" were alliterative; besides, the band had a them called "Racing with the Moon")--and, at one time, that of a whole bunch of his musicians who also sang--few of them well. For a while the band gave the impression, according to one critic, of performing like "a kind of legitimatized Sammy Kaye."

The end of the big band era by no mean meant the end of Vaughn Monroe. If anything, his band, built as it was around so much singing, grew more popular than ever, while so many other, more instrumentally oriented outfits lost ground drastically.

Monroe became very big on radio, especially via his Camel Cigarettes commercials. He continued to handle himself beautifully. His recordings kept on selling well, built, as they were, around his voice--a situation that did not make him completely happy. "Don't think I like the idea of making all those vocal records," he revealed. "We have plenty of good jazzmen in the band, and I'd like to do some instrumentals. But Victor tells me to keep right on singing."

And so right on singing he did--not only on Victor records, but also on behalf of the RCA organization when he became the mammoth corporation's star image on its long series of RCA television commercials. Eventually Vaughn Monroe's Orchestra disappeared completely from the scene. But Vaughn continued to sing, opening his mouth perhaps a bit more widely, straining less to sound operatic, but always projecting the personality of a solid, fairly musical and well-respected citizen. By the end of the sixties, he was spending most of his time in his Florida home. I last saw him during a rare New York public appearance in the early seventies, and to me he sounded as good as, if not better than ever. But I was never to see him again, because Vaughn died on May 21, 1973, after a lingering illness.