Vaughn relaxing off-stage. Despite his larger-than-life stature and rugged movie roles, Monroe was a quiet and introspective sophisticate at heart.
Imagine a pop vocalist who looked and sounded like a movie star. Imagine a tour full of musicians and a bevy of teenage Texas beauties singing back up. Imagine hit records rocketing to the top of the charts…
Today this would be a recipe for lawsuits, paternity suits, and drug busts. Back it up 60 years, and you have the rather uneventful, wholesome touring group known as Vaughn Monroe and his orchestra. The young ladies were backing vocalists known as The Moon Maids, who doubled as babysitters for the band members’ offspring. They sang about “racing with the moon,” but were about as square as a group of musicians could be. And they happened to be just about the hottest big band of the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Monroe was a decent horn player who was blessed with one of the most memorable singing voices in the history of recorded music. Not one of the best, for he didn’t possess the range of a Crosby or a Como, and certainly not the timing or styling of a Sinatra. Yet when that baritone hit the stage, it was magic.
His first hit came relatively early in his career, a song called “There I Go” recorded with his first orchestra. Thought of as a “college act,” Monroe was signed to a minor subsidiary of RCA called Bluebird. Despite the odds, “There I Go” hit the top of the charts, where it stayed for three weeks.
Like most big bands of the 1940s, a number of well-known artists got their start with Vaughn Monroe. Ray Conniff, guitar legend Bucky Pizzarelli, and songstress Georgia Gibbs all performed with the orchestra. Although most of the big bands broke up after the 1947 musician’s union strike, Monroe kept on chugging, and went on to record his biggest hit in 1949: “Ghost Riders In the Sky.” Eventually the same fate befell Monroe’s orchestra. With the band still at the height of its popularity, concert attendance began to drop.
Monroe himself attributed the decline to increased expenses, and above all, television. When expenses drove ticket costs to the breaking point in 1952, the violins were dismissed. More attrition followed, and Monroe called the orchestra business quits in 1953. Of the top orchestras from the 1940s, Guy Lombardo and Count Basie were virtually the only ones who would continue uninterrupted with a sizable show into the 1960s and 1970s.
Also known as “The Duckworth Chant,” this would be one of Vaughn Monroe’s last big hits.
With the loss of his touring band, the hit records stopped. But Monroe’s personal popularity was as strong as ever; he continued to be successful touring as a solo act, using whatever band or orchestra was on the bill. He was also popular as a pitchman, promoting everything from Camel cigarettes and RCA radios to the US Forest Service’s Smokey the Bear campaign. Monroe was a spokesman for RCA televisions well into the 1960s. He continued to headline decent sized showrooms and theatres until his passing in 1973.
From 1940 to 1954, Monroe had close to 70 chart records, including many #1 hits. Three of those songs, “Let It Snow,” “Ghost Riders” and “Ballerina,” rank among the all-time top #1 songs, each dominating the Billboard charts for 10 weeks or more.
Considering Monroe’s suave good looks, height, and voice that could shake the ground, it is surprising that he didn’t achieve even greater fame. Monroe dabbled in cowboy movies in the early 1950s, but he was a city dweller at heart and not quite comfortable with the role. He was put in the role of an outdoorsman for the Smokey the Bear campaign, but was a bit too debonair. Monroe felt at home in front of an orchestra, and although he enjoyed playing the horn, was smart enough to know that his voice made the show go.
Another part of the legend is that Monroe turned down a few songs that might’ve made him an even bigger star. Although a lot is probably rumor or conjecture, a number of sources have claimed that he was offered first crack at “Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer,” but turned it down. The song went on to be a massive hit for Gene Autry. If it’s true, it probably pleased fair-and-square Vaughn Monroe, whose hit with “Ghost Riders” usurped an earlier recording by Autry. Monroe also recorded an early version of “Mule Train,” which was used in one of his westerns, but was slow to promote it as a single. Frankie Laine would go on to have a huge hit with the song.
Even without these, Vaughn Monroe’s roster of #1 hits is quite impressive:
- There I Go
- Racing With The Moon
- When the Lights Go On Again (All Over the World)
- Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!
- There, I’ve Said It Again
- Red Roses For a Blue Lady
- Someday (You’ll Want Me to Want You)
- Ghost Riders In The Sky