Mail Call

February 10, 2009

Perhaps the nicest, most recent surprise-finds online, a side-effect of finding free and downloadable Les Paul radio shows (you can also find Listerine-sponsored TV programmes on YouTube) have been 31 editions from 1944-45 (a few later) of Mail Call, an AFRS (American Forces Radio Station) weekly broadcast. Not until you dig into these do you start to realise what gems they are – and find yourself able to imagine what it must have been like to get these radio ‘letters’ if you were fighting overseas. The files are usually named for two of the stars included, but the truth is, they are jam-packed with acts. It might be that you have to like the cheesy-corny quality of American songs and singers of the forties, and the rapid scripts given to the other performers, but they all ooze good humour.

My favourite so far promised me Dinah Shore and Dorothy Lamour – broadcast on Valentine’s Day 1945, the day itself interestingly getting no mention. Shore was a hugely successful singer – eighty hits – in her day, with one of her earliest being ‘You’d Be So Nice To Come To’. Lamour you’re more likely to know as the Hope and Crosby sidekick in The Road To… series, much beloved by my father. (The Road To Morocco features a famous Hope one-liner: on seeing the Sahara, he remarks, ‘So this is where they emptied out all those old hour-glasses’. The script, by Frank Butler and Don Hartman, was Oscar-nominated in 1942.)

But this is just the start of the show, in which the super-fast jazz pianist Art Tatum plays two numbers – accompanied, and I could hardly believe my luck, by Les Paul on guitar – and in which there is a sketch which features Jack Benny and Danny Kaye. Benny’s grumpy persona is a joy, and Kaye, who always struck me as cloying, also proves why he made it so big. In the obligatory sketch, Benny finds out that Kaye is playing the lead in a projected biopic, ‘The Life Of Jack Benny’, and that the facts are being twisted to suit Kaye’s skills. Someone suggests that Benny should be represented as born in Russia; Benny says Kaye knows nothing about Russia, and could hardly mention a composer; Kaye rattles off a party piece of a song which names 56 Russian composers; and Benny can be heard sotto voce for the rest of the broadcast muttering to himself ‘I could name maybe 30 Russian composers, but 56?’

As radio performers, the Americans were out on their own, easily the first to master the medium. Even my father would have accepted this. He had a long-standing grudge against American films for tending to win the war without assistance, but his taste in music was emphatically American. It is suddenly very frustrating not to be able to surprise him with these gems – he died before CDs had caught hold, let alone the advent of internet surfing. We never talked enough about the one thing we really had in common: music. Ironically, he was fairly convinced that my musical tastes wouldn’t run to his. He was a rugby player and a naval engineer; whatever the opposite of these are, I was. But we could have met on the neutral highways of big band music. He would have been 87 this week, but 65 was the finish of him.

All you have to do is to visit the wing of the vast sound archive here – after which, you may find yourself surfing your way around the many other radio shows and broadcasts collected there.

I’ll save up my favourite Les Paul extravaganza for a rainier day. Here’s Art Tatum (blind in one eye, incidentally) with a take on Dvorak, no less.