The following is an extract from Al Bowlly’s book (yes, I know: who knew he wrote a book?) Modern Style Singing (published in 1935).
Most things that are new come in for a lot of abuse. Especially if they are new art forms. Even to call them “art forms” is enough to rouse the ire of the thoroughly hardbitten diehards.
And of all the many innovations of the past few years “crooning” has had directed at it the most derision and content. Before we go any further with this book I would like to deal with this attitude, because until the reader really understands the reasons for it, and the answer to it, he is likely to suffer from some kind of inferiority complex – to feel that the ambition to become a singer in the mdern microphone style is something shameful and unmanly.
The very word ‘microphone’ supplies the whole answer. It is this simple electrical device which gave rise to the whole art of “crooning,” brought into being hosts of new artists, and immeasurably widened the scope of the entertainment profession.
Let us pause for a moment to examine this word “crooning.” It is a horrible expression, and I use it only because there seems to be nothing else. It is associated with all the unpleasant, smeary, wobbling vocalisms that one ever heard. It is perhaps unnecessary to say that modern microphone singing, even of popular dance tunes, need not be like that.
Different dictionaries give varying definitions, although none of them is up-to-date enough to define it as “quiet singing into a microphone, in the modern dance-band style.” Their efforts vary between “a low moaning sound, as of animals in pain” to “the soft singing of a mother to her child.”
Neither of these is very complementary, but at least the former supplied a new joke for hard-up humorists!
It is generally accepted as being a sign of weakness, I am well aware, to offer a defense when no specific attack has been made, but never the less there have been so many general attacks on this type of singing, and so few defenses of it, that I feel justified in entering the lists.
The microphone brought into being, and sometimes into very prominent being, a whole host of singers who otherwise would never have been heard. There were many performers whose untrained voices, although naturally sweet and pleasing, were not strong enough for the public platform. To these the microphone was more than kind and gave them the power, with the turn of a switch, to drown the most brazen-lunged quasi-operatic singer who ever shook the rafters.
This angered the diehards. “A poor kind of singer is this,” they said scornfully, “who has to call in artificial aids before he can be heard!”
But that seems to me to be a poor argument. It is as logical to say “a poor kind of star is that which cannot be seen without a telescope!”
Confronted with that simile, the anti-crooner usually changes his point of attack. “How can you call these people singers,” he insists, “if they have never been taught to sing, know nothing about voice production, and less about diction?”
To which the answer is that if a crooner produces a sound which is unpleasing, and distorts his words beyond recognition, he will not be a success, even as a crooner.
Most crooners are untrained in the first principles of singing and enunciation; more’s the pity. But it must be admitted.
But whose is the fault? Who is it who has the knowledge to teach these “natural singers” (for that is what they are) where and how to breath, how to pronounce their consonants and vowels, how to phrase, how to sing in their best register, how to control their vibrato, reduce their portamento, and free them of all the annoying tricks which ignorance and inexperience bring?
The legitimate singers and teachers, of course. But they will not. “No,” they say, “you learn to sing our way or not at all!”
And so the crooner continues in his errors, sneered at by just the very people who could help him most. There is no possible way for a singer to learn to sing in the modern microphone style. There is no school which caters for it, no recognised teachers, the musical colleges are just contemptuous, and this, so far as I know, is the first book which has ever been written on the subject.
Is it any wonder, then, that most crooners are dreadful? Yes, I readily admit it. But then, are not most “straight” singers, judged by the highest standards in their own sphere, also dreadful? Is all music bad because a bad café band plays it badly? Indeed no.
There are crooners who produce beautiful sounds with their voices. Surely this undeniable? Their singing may not be academic, but it is often intensely pleasing, and unquestionably gives pleasure to millions.
What more can be asked of singing than that?
And perhaps the most evocative use of a song I can think of is when Bowlly’s Midnight, the Stars and You is used in Kubrick’s The Shining. (If you’ve not seen it, this clip might be a bit of a spoiler. It also might just be a bit meaningless. But probably kind of enjoyable too.)