Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Unsung Vocalists of the Past 2: Charlie Palloy

Another fine CD released by the California-based company The Old Masters gives us the perfect excuse to discuss the recordings of Charlie Palloy, a very obscure artist who made a handful of recordings in the early 1930s and subsequently vanished from sight. His small recorded legacy, though, reveals a very interesting singer and jazzy guitar player who was influenced by Bing Crosby, Eddie Lang, and Nick Lucas.

Very seldom do we find an artist about whom information is so scarce that it is absolutely impossible to determine even an approximate place and date of birth and death, not to mention other specifics about his personal life and career. This is precisely the case of Charlie Palloy, a singer-guitarist whose life story, like the budget label for which he made most of his recordings, Crown Records, is shrouded in such mystery that we simply have to rely on the aural evidence of his recorded work (which is just as scarce as the sources to reconstruct his chronology) in order to try to understand where his artistic ideas and inclinations came from. And the few sides he left us indeed show that, as a vocalist, he was heavily influenced by Bing Crosby, although his baritone was not as rich and deep as Der Bingle's, and as a guitarist he owed a great deal to Eddie Lang (not coincidentally, Crosby's accompanist of choice) and Nick Lucas. Researcher Allan Dodge, who wrote the liner notes for the only CD compilation of Palloy's music currently available, notes that his last name "is taken from the Greek word meaning 'of the common man' and exists as a common name today."

Palloy is uncredited on this 1932 Crown side
Whether this was his real name or not, the Greek meaning is fitting in his case, since he not only remains a very unknown figure today, but even in his day, he was simply a studio-bound singer who recorded exclusively with Crown's house bands and who would have been virtually indistinguishable from many other similar studio vocalists by the buying public, often more interested in the hit song than in the performer. This was, indeed, a common practice at the time (Dick Robertson and Chick Bullock are just two other examples that come readily to mind) and, like many of this type of artists, Palloy does not seem to have made any radio broadcasts or personal appearances. Unfortunately, Crown's session logs are not specific regarding the personnel of the bands backing Palloy, which often identified themselves with different names, although most of his sides were issued as by "Charlie Palloy and His Orchestra," without any information about the identity of the musicians who graced many of the recordings with some undeniably hot solos. As was the common practice then, these house bands also used stock arrangements, though in the case of Palloy's discs, he is allotted plenty of room for both his vocals and guitar playing. This is actually rather unusual in that other musicians, like Lucas and Lang, who were definitely more popular than Palloy, often did not get as much solo space on vocal records as Palloy. However, this is to the benefit of the listener, as he really was quite an accomplished crooner and guitar player.

The only CD completely devoted to Palloy that can be purchased at the time of this writing is Vocals & Guitar (The Old Masters), a very recommendable release that includes 22 sides that he cut for Crown in 1932 and 1933, as well as his only appearance on the Columbia label, providing the vocals for the 1933 version of "On a Steamer Coming Over" by the Meyer Davis Orchestra. The song selection makes it clear that Crown, a budget label distributed through Woolworth's, was attempting to market Palloy as a Crosby soundalike, having him record numbers associated with Bing ("Try a Little Tenderness," "Learn to Croon," "Just an Echo in the Valley," and particularly "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime") to be sold at a much lower price than Crosby's originals. That is precisely the kind of market niche for which budget operations such as Crown were aiming during the depths of the Great Depression, and Palloy handles this material with ease, usually managing not to sound exactly like a carbon copy of Crosby.

The Meyer Davis Orchestra, with whom Palloy recorded one side for Columbia in 1933

One of the most interesting tracks in the collection is the reading of Duke Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" complete with some scatting from Palloy and some jazzy muted trumpet and saxophone. His scatting abilities are also on further display on "Forty Second Street," which features a rather lengthy scat chorus that suggests that he enjoyed wordless singing. Palloy's guitar shines on some quite extended solos, particularly on "The Gold Diggers Song (We're in the Money)" and "I've Got to Sing a Torch Song," and he also shows his talent for singing at slower, though still danceable tempos on "Stormy Weather" and "Say It Isn't So." Palloy proves to be very versatile throughout, both as a singer and as a rhythm and lead guitarist, making us wish that he had enjoyed a longer, more successful career. As it was, however, his recordings span less than two years, and after 1933, he disappeared into total obscurity never to surface again. The rarity and quality of these sides, together with Dodge's very informative liner notes (which, when writing about Palloy, is itself quite a remarkable accomplishment), definitely make this Old Masters CD an essential purchase. As for the mystery surrounding Palloy, hopefully one day some lucky researcher will come upon some time-worn documents in some forgotten basement that will shed some light on his obscure figure. Until then, though, Palloy's few recordings are a real pleasure to enjoy.


Note on Charlie Palloy's Vocals & Guitar CD

This fine Charlie Palloy compilation can be obtained from major online retailers such as Amazon. It can also be purchased by writing to The Old Masters. P.O. Box 25358. San Mateo, CA 94402. USA.

Palloy's version of "Try a Little Tenderness" is also available on the compilation The First Crooners Vol. 2: 1930-1934 (Take Two), which includes tracks by other neglected crooners of the era, such as Sam Coslow, Chick Bullock, Art Gillham, Little Jack Little, Jack Miller, Smith Ballew, Carl Brisson, and Conrad Thibault, to name but a few.


Crown Records said...

Nice piece Anton & Erin. There is finally some info on Charlie: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=166233043581841&set=a.104579039747242.1073741826.104526363085843&type=1&theater

Crown Records said...

See also the Crown Records page; scroll down for more on Charlie:

Anton Garcia-Fernandez said...

Dear Crown Records,

Thank you very much for this new information on Charlie, which I somehow didn't manage to find as I was doing the research for my little article. And congratulations as well on your most interesting Facebook page, which I will check regularly from now on. I also look forward to reading the new piece on Palloy in VJM's Jazz & Blues Mart.

Ever since I bought the Old Masters CD that I review here, I have been intrigued by Palloy and love all the sides by him that I have heard, so I will have to look for that upcoming volume of The Big Broadcast series.

Thanks again for your kind comment!

Anton G.-F.