In 1937, when Route 1 was just 11 years old, Rudy Vallee released his first big hit: “The Whiffenpoof Song”. Although Hubert was his given name, Vallee earned his nickname “Rudy” at the University of Maine, where, as a freshman he tirelessly played along with saxophonist Rudy Wiedoeft’s entire catalog of records.
Vallee transferred to Yale, continuing to play big band music. According to legend, he tried out to sing for the Yale Glee Club, but was turned turned down by the Director, Marshall Bartholomew, and was encouraged to stick to the saxophone.Undaunted, Vallee started vocalizing through a megaphone to front his band, “The Yale Collegians”, pioneering the crooning style well ahead of Bing Crosby, Perry Como and Dean Martin.
After graduation in New York City, Vallee became the host of the first radio variety talk show in the US, The Fleischmann Yeast Hour, which became wildly popular and made him a household name. He also got a bit of revenge for his rejection by Bartholemew by copyrighting “The Whiffenpoof Song”, which had been written in 1909 (when the “Whiffs” were formed) by founding members Tod B. Galloway, Meade Minnigerode, and George S. Pomeroy.
There ensued a long and bitter fight between Yale University and Vallee’s publisher, Miller Music over the 1936 copyright claim to the song. Miller compensated Minnegrode and Pomeroy for the lyrics, and even got approval from the estate of Rudyard Kipling, since Kipling’s poem, “Gentlemen Songsters” was the model used for the lyrics.Eventually, after a long legal battle,Yale attained the right to include it in G. Schirmer’s “Songs of Yale” 1953 edition.Yale had published the song in the 1928 and 1934 editions of the collection.Vallee’s crooned version of the Whiffenpoof Song was singular reason for its popularity while flivvers rumbled up and down Route One.Recognition of the song opened many doors for the collegiate group that first sang it around the tables down at Mory’s in 1909.
The plot thickened after the death of Tod Galloway in 1935.Galloway had been credited with the music of the Whiffenpoof Song.However, a claim arose from Harvard graduate Hamilton Scull (1898).Scull had “composed” the same music.However, the tune turned out to be an appropriation of an African-American spiritual!I think it is fair to say that a fair claim can not really be made by anyone at this point.
I had the unexpected pleasure of meeting Rudy Vallee in Los Angeles while on tour with the Whiffenpoofs of 1980. He spoke bitterly about his contentious fight with the University over the song, but said that time had healed many old wounds. He invited the group the next day to his beautiful contemporary home in the Hollywood Hills. His private lane was named “Rue de Vallee”! He put on a short show for us there and then we all sang the Whiffenpoof Song together. It was very surreal being surrounded by the memorabilia of the 33 films in which he appeared and hearing stories from “back in the day” at Yale.Vallee diedfrom cancer 6 years after that encounter.
The tradition of the “Whiffenpoof Song” is to close each appearance of the group by inviting former Whiffenpoofs in the audience to the stage to sing the song with the current group. The Whiffenpoofs are the oldest collegiate a cappella group in the US. The song has been recorded by Elvis Presley, Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, The Lettermen, Mitch Miller, Perry Como, The Statler Brothers, The Mills Brothers, and Ella Fitzgerald. I had the honor of singing the song with Ella when we made her an Honorary Whiffenpoof (the first female!) in 1980 at the Ambassador’s Residence in London.