Taylor McClaskie is one of the Music Division’s summer 2019 interns. She is a Ph.D. candidate in musicology at Case Western Reserve University. Here, she writes about the early days of radio and one of its near-forgotten stars.
Among the hundreds of songs that have crossed my desk this summer as I help process and catalogue unpublished popular music, I’ve seen lots of great items. Pieces by jazz pianist James P. Johnson, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, blues singer Hattie Burleson, A. P. Carter of the Carter Family, Frank Zappa, Jimi Hendrix, and Carole King. It just keeps going.
But perhaps one of the most exciting items was deposited for copyright nearly a century ago by a long forgotten star: Radio Girl.
The singer’s stage name was Vaughn de Leath. The deposit came in the form of a substantial stack of paper held together with a bit of string. Scribbled on the make-shift cover page, a thick piece of blank staff paper smudged with ink, I saw the title “De Luxe Revue.” Deposited with the Library on Nov. 6, 1919, this packet of paper holds the score and stage direction for a revue written by de Leath.
Vaughn de Leath (1894-1943), born Leonore Vonderleith, was a performer, entertainer, and songwriter. She was one of the first women to sing on radio and was appropriately nicknamed “The Original Radio Girl.” Some even suggest that she performed in the laboratory of inventor Lee De Forest, the self-described “Father of Radio.” During the 1920s and 1930s, de Leath serenaded audiences through their radios in New York and New Jersey. Though she had a wide vocal range, de Leath avoided her soprano register during broadcast for fear that the high pitches would shatter the delicate transmitters of early radio. Instead, she relied on the low alto end of her voice and helped develop the style we now know as crooning.
She made “Ukulele Lady” a hit in 1925; her recording was used in the 1999 film “The Cider House Rules,” and everyone from Arlo Guthrie to Bette Midler has recorded it. Throughout her performing career de Leath recorded with labels such as Edison, General Phonograph Corporation, and Okeh. In 1923, she became one of the first women to manage a radio station.
Yet before her career as a radio singer, de Leath worked as a composer and stage performer. According to her obituary, she was responsible for over 500 songs, some published as early as 1912. “De Luxe Revue,” in the 1919 deposit with the Library, includes five handwritten songs, all by de Leath, and presumably in her hand.
Revues hit their stride in America in the first two decades of the 20th century and were made popular by Florenz Ziegfeld’s spectacular “Ziegfeld Follies.” These variety shows were filled with song, dance, and spectacle. Some revues had a central theme, but usually there was no overarching plot. They were humorous variety shows intended for a wide audience. De Leath’s “De Luxe Revue” is a whirlwind tour around the globe, taking the audience to Ireland, Spain, Italy, Egypt and the American South. This is a perfect setting for a revue; not only does each scene allow for character pieces that capitalize on exoticized notions of these far-away places, but each location calls for new scenery, new costumes, and new spectacle.
“De Luxe Revue” starts with an “Irish Extravaganza.” We can see de Leath’s stage design and outlines for the musical sequence. In this sketch, a character named Paddy sings “My Sweet Colleen” to an Irish lass on a stage adorned with harps. During the third chorus of the song, giant shamrocks—a woman perched on each one—are rolled on stage. After the shamrock ladies dismount their clovers by walking down the flowers’ stems, the chorus dances an Irish reel. In a moment of true spectacle, the sides of a large harp, placed center stage, open to reveal a couple who dances a “special dance.” For the big finish everyone comes forward and dances the Irish reel and the number concludes with one final chorus of “My Sweet Colleen.”
The stage directions de Leath provided in “Along the Nile” give us insight into the show’s performances in New York and across the country. This show was full of exciting stage action and complex scenery.
In addition to women-bearing shamrocks and giant harps, the De Luxe Revue also included men seducing women by dancing the fandango, a girl playing a grand piano in a balcony under a Venetian moon, and an on-stage pool built for none other than Cleopatra herself. Revue performances were flexible; it was not uncommon for singers to switch out songs because another piece suited their voice better or because the audience demanded a more popular tune.
While the copyright deposit for “De Luxe Revue” is certainly not an “urtext,” it certainly is a snapshot photo, allowing us to see how this show may have existed at a particular moment in time a century ago.
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