The height of vaudeville in the first quarter of the 20th century coincided with the rise of the recording industry, but that doesn't mean the eclectic entertainment form is well documented on record. Theater owners actively discouraged performers from making records, and many entertainers felt that recording material they performed would limit their stage success. Nevertheless, as time went on, more and more vaudeville stars began entering studios. History has not been kind to most of them, however: when vaudeville died, it took the careers of many of its entertainers with it, and record labels such as Victor and Columbia have rarely reissued their performances. All of this makes Legendary Voices of Vaudeville all the more valuable. A compilation of 40 tracks by 40 vaudeville singing and comedy acts, it is drawn largely, if without credit, from those labels, with the records having been mastered and then sonically restored. It's unclear what the legal niceties may be, but it's notable that such major vaudevillians as Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, and Fanny Brice are missing. That's not to say there aren't some big-time names here (like George M. Cohan, Sophie Tucker, Jimmy Durante); plus, many of these songs rate as standards. But the album does not pretend to be a collection of the best or best-known vaudeville music. Rather, it is a representative sampling, much of it obscure songs by forgotten performers. It's not stars or hits that make the set work; it's the album's sheer entertainment value. These were people accustomed to warming up cold audiences with their voices and personalities, and that's exactly what they do here, stopping songs to break into jokes, addressing the listeners, and generally putting the material over winningly. But beyond the obvious enjoyment factor, the album also has historical value: many of these recordings are absurdly rare. Jim Stettler's liner notes point out a few facts about even the most obscure artists included, and the sound processing makes even the earliest tracks listenable. The result is an excellent compilation of material that has rarely been available since it was originally recorded.
Share this page
AllMusic Review by William Ruhlmann