Tidbits: It's So Old, It's New Again

Traditional pop enthusiasts across the country have been bemoaning the influence of American Idol since Kelly Clarkson first became an overnight sensation in 2002. Over the past seven years this ubiquitous television franchise has spawned a number of pop artists and hit records. Contestants like Kellie Pickler and Carrie Underwood have become household names. Others, like Chris Daughtry and Jordin Sparks have found success in narrower segments of music, while some like Katharine MacPhee and Clay Aiken appear to be today's incarnation of Rosemary Clooney and Julius LaRosa. Even the host and judges have become household names.

To the ultra conservative connoisseur of American popular song, this recent trend is some sort of a musical travesty. They'll cry foul that Carrie Underwood has a Grammy...even David Cook has a platinum album, for heaven's sake! "Remember the good old days when artists paid their dues, and the cream rose to the top?"

When you've finally heard enough whining, it's time to set the trap. You might say something like this: "You're so right. What's happened to all the great vocalists like Pat Boone, or Vic Damone! What about Rosemary Clooney, The McGuire Sisters, or The Chordettes? Remember the greats like Al Martino, Tony Bennett and Eddie Fisher?" At this point our complainer is probably nodding readily in agreement. Once they do, it's time to spring the trap:

"They all got their big break on a talent show, just like American Idol."


It started in 1946, before the age of television and long playing records, in an era when most Americans had never set foot in an airplane and couldn't imagine buying a car made in Japan. Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts was based on the premise that Godfrey had dozens of agents secretly scouring the country for the next big thing. These hidden gems would be showcased in a live radio competition, with the winner determined by an applause meter that gauged the reaction of the studio audience.

As television finally began to take hold in 1948, Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts was reinvented for the new medium. But the radio broadcasts were so popular that these lingered until 1956, making it one of the few programs to thrive on both radio and television at the same time. Like American Idol so many years later, Talent Scouts created plenty of water cooler buzz the day after it was aired. "So-and-so didn't deserve to win last night..."

The television program dominated the Nielsen Ratings by 1951, when it was the number-one program of the year. It dropped slightly to second and third place over the next two seasons, but was actually gaining viewers as the number of households with televisions kept increasing. And like Idol some 60 years later, the show regulars enjoyed some degree of stardom in their own right. Musical director and Bandleader Archie Bleyer became a household name, and created a bit of a stir when he departed Talent Scouts in 1955. Sound familiar? The ratings dropped noticeably after his departure. We must add that Bleyer was not quite as "mercurial" as Paula Abdul, so history might not necessarily repeat itself. Time will tell. Bleyer in turn started the Cadence record label, which blossomed after he signed the Everly Brothers in the late 1950s.

Godfrey's star began to tarnish after the "firing" of Julius LaRosa. He reportedly became somewhat paranoid after the public outcry, then increasingly so after Bleyer's departure. Godfrey had a few medical procedures that were said to change his personality, although it seems more likely that the media simply began reporting on his faults rather than just his warm, fatherly image. In any case Godfrey's popularity began to wane, however, it was still strong enough that the Talent Scouts remained a top program. It ended its run in 1958, coinciding with the discovery that Godfrey had lung cancer. He more or less disappeared from regular TV at that time, although he continued to appear on talk shows and other venues through the 1970s. Considering that cancer treatment was still very much in the pioneering stage in the late 1950s, Godfrey defied the odds by surviving until 1983.

continues above, in column at right...

featured performance

Here's a vintage video of "Little Godfreys" The McGuire Sisters, on Arthur Godfrey and Friends. This footage gives you some idea of Godfrey's appeal, and his "paternal" demeanor toward the artists he took under his wing. Please note that you have to click on the little "play" arrow twice to get it to work.

Tidbits, continued from column at left

The most successful performers on Talent Scouts were frequently invited to join Godfrey's more formal Arthur Godfrey and His Friends show. These regulars were called "Little Godfreys" and became household names. The most notable artists who made this jump were Pat Boone, Patsy Cline, The Chordettes, The McGuire Sisters, and of course Julius LaRosa. In addition to the "Little Godfreys" was an equally impressive list of future stars who performed on Talent Scouts. As mentioned above, Vic Damone, Al Martino, Rosemary Clooney, Tony Bennett and Eddie Fisher all received their first "big break" on Godfrey's program. Even during its final years, Talent Scouts was turning out household names. The Diamonds, Steve Lawrence, Johnny Nash, Leslie Uggams, and Roy Clark are among the artists who trace their first crack at fame to Godfrey.

Not all of the acts on Talent Scouts were musically oriented. Lenny Bruce and Jonathon Winters were probably the most significant comedians who had their careers accelerated by Godfrey. It's a bit ironic that Godfrey, king of homespun, played a role in Bruce's career.

It is impossible to predict how long the show might've continued if not for Godfrey's health issues. The "spirit" of the show continued through the variety shows of the 1960s; Ed Sullivan certainly hosted his share of undiscovered acts, as did Andy Williams. It was lampooned during the 1970s by Chuck Barris' Gong Show. The competition aspect returned with a vengeance during the 1980s with Star Search, with Ed McMahon playing Godfrey's role as a folksy, paternalistic host. Music was only a fraction of the offerings on that program, although it did spawn brief success for pop princess Tiffany and a country act called Sawyer Brown.

Today, of course, the talent competition genre is alive and quite well in the form of American Idol. The most significant difference between the 1949 version and the 2009 version is probably the speed at which singers rise and fall. Thanks to the internet, Idol has produced a steady stream of overnight sensations who rocket to stardom but fade just as quickly. These include William Hung of "She-Bang" fame, and Sanjaya Malakar of big hair fame. It will be interesting to see how many years will pass before American Idol falls from grace, and how soon a new talent competition will take its place.

In the meantime, if some stodgy old musical "purist" should happen to complain about that silly American Idol program, gently remind them about Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts.

* * * * * *

To revisit "Tidbits" from last month, which delves into some odd connections between Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Mercer -- as well as a farewell to Mary Travers, please click here.