In a stunning display of no planning whatsoever leading to what might seem to be an inevitable destination, all the talk here in the past two weeks of crooners (Crosby and Vallee) has deposited us on the doorstep of the most mysterious of all cronner's birthday centennial. Russ Columbo would have turned one-hundred years old today, January 14, 2008 if he'd A) cut out the red meat, booze and cigarettes, B) had the genes required to live double the then-predicted life span and C) not screwed around with that gun that his friend Lansing Brown had in his house which accidently went off and shot him to death at the unbelivably tender age of twenty-six.
(By the way, I discovered it was Columbo's centennial while listening last night to one of the best radio shows broadcast in these United States--Rich Conaty's "Big Broadcast", which emanates from Fordham University on WFUV but which can, of course, be found here on the internet. Conaty plays strictly period records--twenties and early thirties--with a pleasant and never overwhelming amount of information offered about the music; indeed his show even feels a bit of the period--maybe it's Conaty's good-natured Joe College persona--and often times on Sunday nights while listening I find myself drifting into a pleasant, hallucinatory art deco-ish state of mind. Which I highly recommend as a drug of choice. Along with a Makers Mark Manhattan, of course).
Columbo was the "crooners crooner"--a better singer than Vallee and a more romantic presence than Bing Crosby. In some ways he looked ahead to the young Sinatra--his dapper, masculine presence makes him appear far less dated now than his contemporaries and, as you'll see in the below clip, he possesses an assuredness, a debonair calm, that almost--ALMOST--could be called hip. Or hep. (I wonder what the hip word for hep was in the early thirties). Like Sinatra, Columbo was an Italian from New Jersey (screw Sinatra--Jackie Paris was an Italian from New Jersey as well) and like Crosby he was first seen as part of a vocal trio--he can be seen in this context with Gus Arnheim's orchestra in a Vitaphone Short which is part of the extra's package on the lavish new DVD release of "The Jazz Singer". (The two discs of extras--rather than the main attraction--make owning this DVD package essential. There are those who love "The Jazz Singer" but I'm not one of them). Columbo, again like Crosby, quickly jettisoned his partners and--like Vallee--became famous overnight on radio. (By the way--I made some flippant observations about Rudy Vallee's book "Let The Chips Fall" but there is much in it that's worthwhile--specifically a chapter called "Radio's Child" where he recounts the actual birth of what we now know as the "live broadcast"). Columbo only appeared in a handful of movies before his absurd early death and the below clip is from one called "Wake Up And Dream", shot (you should pardon the expression) in late 1933.
Some things about the below clip that I like: the director Kurt Neumann (later--much later--he directed "The Fly"; and before that film was released he mysteriously committed suicide) clearly likes the theatrical setting and gives a nice sense of what it might be like to be in a theatre during a rehearsal period--the grubby informality of the on-lookers is accurate and the chorines hanging about on the steps and catwalks are a nice touch. Also the way that Columbo wins over the band, who upon hearing that he can really sing start to accompany him, is a good touch--accurate in terms of how even cynical musicians can become generous when they recognize talent in a performer.
What would have become of Russ Columbo had he not perished at the age of twenty-six? Would he, and not Crosby, have become the first multi-media celebrity? Or, like Vallee, would he have remained a creature of his period and turned up, decades later, only as a reminder of a largely forgotten past? We'll never know, of course, and Columbo's position as sacrificial crooner makes him all the more alluring. Cloaked in a shadowy glamour (there have always been the usual rumors of his death being foul-play but they never ring as true as, say, the Thelma Todd stories do), Columbo stands aloof from his contemporaries, isolated by his fate. The few appearances he made on film and a few years worth of recordings (the big hits were "Prisoner Of Love" and "You Call It Madness But I Call It Love") are all he left behind and yet seventy-five years after his death this is enough for people to be celebrating the hundredth annivesary of his birth. Which is something of a testament not only to his talent but to the power of the technology--radio and records--that he played an important role in popularizing.