Dick Haymes

While doing some of the groundwork for the PopularSong.org feature on Oscar Hammerstein II, we noticed that most of the top 40 “hit” recordings of Hammerstein’s songs were not the versions done by the original stage or screen performers. The notable exception was Dick Haymes’ recording of “It Might as Well be Spring.”

The song was part of the 1945 production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s State Fair, which was done as a movie first — the Broadway show came later. Haymes, a handsome baritone vocalist, had a starring role in the film, and the single went all the way to #5. One of the reasons it was unusual for an original soundtrack recording to soar to the top of the charts is that the soundtracks of the 1940s were often sold as box sets of 78s. Pricey and heavy, record buyers didn’t necessarily want the rest of the songs. It was a different mindset from buying long playing 33 1/3 rpm albums — which weren’t available until later — because you had to change records after every song. Since they weren’t going to play one of those other songs, why buy it? Competing record companies used an artist from their stable and rushed out one-off recordings of show tunes as a single 78. Faced with buying a box of pricey records or a very capable single recorded by Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra or Jo Stafford, the decision was easy and the name artists on the widely-distributed labels sold and sold.

Haymes success with “It Might as Well be Spring” was a rare exception. Decca put it as the “B” side of another State Fair song destined for chart success called “That’s for Me.” After radio djs began turning the platter over, “Spring” eclipsed the original A side in terms of chart success. RCA, meanwhile, rushed out a version by Sammy Kaye, and Capitol’s music director Paul Weston banged out a version with Margaret Whiting. Both of these competing records reached the top 10, but didn’t have the staying power of Haymes’ original.

Haymes’ life story is certainly an unusual one. (We have it here as a backgrounder to our main story line). He was born in Argentina, but was actually Irish. He was raised in France for awhile, then in the USA. He worked as a part time radio vocalist and movie stuntman before being given a big break by Harry James. Haymes married starlet Joanne Dru (of She Wore A Yellow Ribbon fame), divorced and married Rita Hayworth, and then had two later marriages.

He touted his non-belligerent status as an Argentinian citizen to avoid the draft, but had a change of heart and volunteered for the US Army, but was found to be medically ineligible. He then became a tireless performer for the USO. Haymes’ career disintegrated during the 1950s due to drink, and in 1955 a snafu of red tape he was briefly refused re-entry into the country following a trip to the territory of Hawaii.

By 1960 he had vanished from the public eye. He launched a comeback in the early 1970s, seeming to have hardly aged at all. Haymes played guest starring roles on various TV dramas, and sang on TV variety shows. Big Band music made a comeback, and soon Haymes was performing to standing ovations wherever he went. At the height of his comeback, Haymes was found to have cancer, went into a sort of semi-retirement, and passed away in 1980.

Back to our essay.

In some respects Dick Haymes was a quintessential entertainer for the 1940s, a sort of runner-up to Bing Crosby. Haymes had hit records, hit movies, and successful radio programs; he just never had the overwhelming success that Crosby enjoyed. Haymes’ acting wasn’t as polished, and while his vocal skills were excellent, his sound wasn’t as memorable as other artists of the day. It certainly wasn’t bland, but if you were to pick a voice that could generically represent the sound of the 1940s, Dick Haymes would be that voice. Virtually any music student today worth his or her mp3 player could identify a Haymes recording as a product of the war era, yet they’d probably be unable to identify the artist. If anything, his performances define the era so perfectly that listeners don’t even need to know who he was.

After doing stuntwork in a number of films, Haymes appeared as a vocalist with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra in the 1943 hit film DuBarry Was a Lady, starring Lucille Ball, Red Skelton, and Gene Kelly. His on-screen ease was readily apparent, and he would soon go on to bigger roles and a 20th Century Fox movie contract in 1945. His first major success was the aforementioned State Fair, from which he had a hit with “It Might As Well Be Spring.” This actually wasn’t Haymes first hit to springboard from a movie, which oddly enough was one he “covered.” He had a small role in Four Jills in a Jeep, a forgettable 1943 picture that recycled a song from a picture called Hello Frisco Hello. The song “You’ll Never Know” was sung in both by Alice Faye; Haymes version was a solid seller and actually reached #1 on some charts. Frank Sinatra’s version peaked at #2 nationally, and overall outsold Haymes.

With State Fair and a series of hit singles like “In My Arms” and “Laura” routinely reaching the top ten, Haymes was a major star by 1945. His style was smooth crooning, nothing too complex and certainly nothing that strayed from the status quo. One of his biggest hits came in 1948, when “Little White Lies” rode the charts for five months, peaking at #3.  Along with “Laura” and “It Might As Well Be Spring,” this would be a signature song for Haymes and an important part of his repertoire during the 1970s comeback.

As we’ve stated, Haymes was an unusually successful movie vocalist in that his originals generally managed to outsell competitive covers. It’s hard to believe today that people didn’t always insist on the original, but that’s how it was. In many cases, the first version they might’ve heard of a given song was a live performance on a radio show, so there wouldn’t necessarily be any loyalty to a specific recording. Even Bing Crosby had trouble beating back the competition from his film songs; “White Christmas” being a notable exception. Again, this was a different era; artists like Haymes (and Crosby) thought nothing of covering other songs, just as theirs were covered. In 1949 Haymes covered country artist George Morgan’s “Room Full of Roses,” and put a cover of Nat Cole’s massive “Nature Boy” on the flip side. The disc was a solid “double-sided” hit for Haymes. Another of his biggest hits was a cover of Perry Como’s “Til the End of Time;” Haymes’ version reached #3 on the pop charts.

Haymes was clearly a likable, approachable vocalist. As the sound of the crooner began to turn toward a more blues-infused sound in the 1950s, Haymes continued to have a few hits. He attempted to evolve into a sort of cabaret approach, performing with and then marrying a much younger Fran Jefferies. The growing spector of rock and roll eroded his record-selling popularity, and then a host of personal problems closed the door on his career.

After drying out and cleaning up his life, Haymes found his final true love in 1965 when he married Wendy Smith. This would be the longest union of Haymes’ five marriages, and would last until his death. By the early 1970s Haymes was back on the scene. He fit into the role of “former movie star” and made guest appearances on such TV fare as McMillan and Wife. He looked well, he sang well, and an aging audience of World War II veterans were more than ready to revisit standards such as “Little White Lies.” Haymes was at peace with himself, happily married, and happily performing for audiences around the world. Although now into his 50s, Haymes was still movie-star handsome and of course carried himself with the same natural ease and confidence he’d always had. Sadly, just as he was re-established as a performer, lung cancer claimed his life at age 61.

Haymes’ legacy as a vocalist isn’t as memorable as other 1940s artists such as Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Frankie Laine, or even Vaughn Monroe. At the time, however, he was nearly on par with all of them. He created a sound and an image that was personable and extremely accessible. Listeners didn’t need to understand timing or phrasing or certain styles to appreciate Dick Haymes, he simply sang well, hit his notes perfectly, and was easy to listen to.

Easy and straightforward may not be the most talented singing style, but it’s hard to think of a better way to approach American Popular Song.