Sunday, March 30, 2014

Nice review of my book

Here's another nice "bolt from the blue."  

Back in 2004 I had some correspondence with Jim Pegolotti, author of a biography of Deems Taylor (1885-1966)—the American composer, music critic and promoter of classical music.  I had enjoyed his book (Deems Taylor: A Biography, published by Northeastern University Press in 2003), and wrote inquiring if there had been any connection or interaction between my father and Taylor.  There hadn't. But Jim was kind and encouraging about my project.

At any rate, last month I had a nice letter from Jim, saying he had read my book, and here is what he wrote about it:

"You have written a uniquely compelling biography, for while your ostensible purpose is a chronology of th life of your father, you have written a fascinating story of three people: you father, your mother and you. A biography written by someone who lived with the subject provides a stronger emotional reaction on the reader than one written by a 'stranger.' With the exceptional letters of your mother covering the early years, the your recollections coming firmly in your father's final years, nothing could come closer to giving the reader the sense of a singer who ultimately lost control of himself. I suppose he gave in to the power of fame. And yet what a wonderful voice."

Thank you Jim!

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Old Friends

I had a nice note (and book order!) from one of my far-flung correspondents this past week—Dave Strong from Thief River Falls, Minnesota. Our parents were friends and car collecting buddies from way back. Dave remembers being allowed to 'chauffeur' my father around Minneapolis in the Strong's 1915 Pierce Arrow.

Here's a photo of Dave's dad and mine, having what looks like a pretty serious conversation, probably taken in the late 1940s.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Lebendige Vergangenheit restocked

Good news:  Berkshire Record Outlet has just restocked the Preiser CD — James Melton Lebendige Vergangenheit (Legendary Voices). It's the best price around, only $5.99 plus shipping. If you like opera, you'll love this CD.

Here's what's on it:

By the way, I don't derive any monetary benefit from the sale of these CDs, produced in Austria in 2008. I'm just delighted that they are out there for us all to enjoy.

Here is the link to Berkshire. It should take you directly to the James Melton CD:

Saturday, February 22, 2014

JM on TV's "American Pickers"

James and Marjorie Melton in 1903 Stanley Steamer

Oh my goodness, one never knows where Melton-related bits will turn up.  The other night, I was watching “American Pickers” on the History Channel. (In case you don’t know, it’s about two guys who, as the website says:  “…are on a mission to recycle America, even if it means diving into countless piles of grimy junk or getting chased off a gun-wielding homeowner’s land. Hitting back roads from coast to coast, the two men earn a living by restoring forgotten relics to their former glory, transforming one person’s trash into another’s treasure…”)

More often than not, the treasures they find have to do with automobiliana—from old gas station signs to vintage oil cans and car parts.

Last Wednesday night, in amongst the stuff of interest to pickers Mike and Frank was a Stanley Steamer pressure gauge (as I recall). There followed a very brief ‘history lesson’ about Stanley Steamers and the Stanley Brothers. By way of illustration of Stanley Steamer cars, there were two photographs shown:  One was of a Stanley in front of our instantly recognizable Weston, Connecticut garage. The other was of my parents waving from a 1903 Stanley Steamer!!! (The photo above.)  Each photo was on the screen for a just few seconds, but they jumped out at me instantly. Of course, the people were not identified, just the cars.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Shirley Temple Black 1928-2014

James Melton, Shirley Temple, 
(does anyone know who the lady in back left is?) 
and my mother, Marjorie

It is with sadness that we note the death of Shirley Temple Black earlier this week at the age of eighty-five.

She and my parents lived next door to one another briefly in 1944, while my father was in Hollywood filming segments for "Ziegfeld Follies.  

For more details on their association, and a slightly different photo of Shirley and my parents, go to my blog post from January 28, 2010.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Risë Stevens, James Melton, Nadine Connor

Risë Stevens, James Melton, Nadine Connor

Just when I think I've exhausted all the Melton memorabilia to be found on e-bay...something else turns up. In this case the photograph above. It's dated December 8, 1952.

Here's what it says on the reverse:  

Non-operatic Harmony in New York—Risë Stevens, James Melton and Nadine Connor, stars of the Metropolitan Opera, sang for fun at a gala 25th anniversary dinner for the Community Concerts at the Waldorf-Astoria. Misses Stevens and Connor will take part in a performance of "Carmen" which will be televised from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera to theaters Thursday.  

A precursor to the Met in HD that's been so popular the past few years?

Although my father left the Met in 1949, he did sing with Risë Stevens earlier in their careers. In the 1943-44 season’s performances of Mignon starred Ms. Stevens and were conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham. Ms. Stevens was pregnant at the time, she told me many years later. At first, my father’s strength allowed him to carry her limp body on stage as he rescued her from the fire in Act II, but as Risë began to rise, the lift got lower and, eventually, she had to limp on stage with his arm around her.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Gustave Haenschen and James Melton

More from Dr. Jim Drake. (He is President Emeritus of Eastern Florida State College, formerly Brevard Community College, and the author of several singers' biographies.)

 Back in November he e-mailed me as to whether I had any memories, or had unearthed any information in my book research, about the friendship, both social and musical, between conductor and recording industry executive Gustave Haenschen.

Regrettably, I had few memories of Gus and his wife Roxie, except that I knew they were close friends of both my parents.  So Jim filled me in, and I thought his remarks would also be of interest to those who follow this blog.  With his permission, I reprint some of them here:

Born near St. Louis in 1890, Haenschen became the Director of Popular-Music Recordings in 1919, when the Brunswick Record Company was formed.  In 1929, Haenschen left Brunswick to become one of the founders of World Broadcasting Services, which supplied pre-recorded musical programming for the burgeoning radio industry.  Haenschen continued to be a major figure in radio broadcasting into the early 1950s, when he retired.  Years later, in the late 1960s, he came out of retirement to co-direct the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts as an executive of the G.H. Johnston Company, which produced the broadcasts under Texaco's sponsorship.

I was fortunate to spend considerable time with Gus Haenschen throughout the 1970s, when I was a young professor and administrator at Ithaca College, where Haenschen was a major donor and long-time member of the Board of Trustees.  I also had the pleasure of co-directing an oral-history project that Haenschen funded for recording and archiving interviews with early radio and recording artists.

I recall vividly our many conversations about the friendship between your father and Gus Haenschen--not only their musical association (the two first met in 1926, Haenschen recalled), but also the time they spent together working on a number of your father's antique cars.  Haenschen was a mechanical engineer (he had graduated from Washington University's College of Engineering) and was also a metallurgist and metal-fabricator.  In his shop on the acreage of his estate on Old Rock Lane in Norwalk, CT, he fabricated missing or damaged gears and other metal parts for several of your father's automobiles.

He also spoke of the intense rivalry between your father and tenor Frank Munn, who was a "regular" on "The Palmolive Hour" and many of the other radio shows that Haenschen co-owned or produced.  Although Munn's ultra-light lyric-tenor voice had none of the fullness of tone nor the throbbing intensity of your father's range, Munn and your father had a mutual friend in Gus Haenschen--and on one occasion, during a chance encounter between the two tenors outside a Manhattan restaurant, Haenschen literally had to step between Munn and your father to prevent an escalating verbal incident from turning into an outright fistfight.  But throughout the twists and turns of the Melton-Munn rivalry, Haenschen managed to remain friends with both men, and was especially elated when your father was offered a contract by the Metropolitan Opera Company.

On a related note, I had the privilege of writing the biographies of Rosa Ponselle (first for Doubleday in 1982, and later for Amadeus in 1997, her centenary year), Richard Tucker (for E.P. Dutton, 1984), and Lily Pons (Amadeus).   All were genuine admirers of your father (including Tucker, who rarely spoke about any other tenors), and Ponselle spoke very warmly of your father as a singer and as a man.

...and in a follow-up e-mail to me Jim wrote:

 Both Roxanne and Gus had wonderful things to say about your parents, and all of the good times that they had together.  As you may remember, Gus was an exquisite pianist (in addition to being a conductor, arranger, and songwriter), and when your parents would come to the Haenschens for dinner, Gus would make his way to the piano, encourage your father to sing, and would accompany him on the Steinway.  

Regarding the Munn-Melton rivalry, to be candid about it, I never understood what would prompt your father to give a single thought to any other tenor, especially one who had--as Frank Munn had--an indistinctive tone quality, a notably small voice, and a very limited upper range (he rarely sang above an A-natural, and relied on the falsetto more often than not).  I could understand a rivalry between your father and (say) Richard Crooks, or Jan Peerce, or the young Richard Tucker, because they were American tenors, and they were on the Metropolitan rosters and were singing in the same general repertoire in which your father excelled.  But Frank Munn?

What made it even stranger was that Munn, according to Gus Haenschen, never thought of himself as a rival of your father.  Munn was contented with his weekly radio engagements, and had no aspirations beyond that.  Additionally, Munn was very sensitive about his physical appearance--for most of his career he weighed well over 300 pounds, and was reluctant to be photographed, let alone to make any personal appearances.  Your father, by contrast, was tall, trim, broad-shouldered, and looked like a movie star.  

Personally, I have always been enamored with your father's singing.  Although I never had the privilege of hearing him in-person, I "discovered" James Melton when I was in my early teens, and I acquired every recording of his that I could find.  Among my favorites was his Victor Red Seal of "I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen," with "Oh, Dry Those Tears" on the second side of the disc.  And among his opera recordings, I consider his "Siciliana" from Cavalleria to be matchless--and I could readily list a dozen more. 

Thank you, Dr. Drake, for this wealth of information, and for letting me publish it here!