A few weeks ago, I published a review of an Engelbert Humperdinck concert DVD, and while I was doing research for it I ran across something he once said and it sort of stuck with me. When someone commented about how a few critics had dismissed him as a mere “crooner”, he frowned and answered, “If you are not a crooner, it’s something you don’t want to be called.”
Huh? Well, Engelbert has a right to express his feelings, but to me the real question for both him and the unnamed crtics is, when did being a crooner become a bad thing?
I guess a good starting place for this puzzle would be a definition. The music wiki defines it like this: “Crooner is an epithet given to a male singer of a certain style of popular songs, dubbed pop standards. A crooner is a singer of popular ballads thus a ‘balladeer’. The singer is normally backed by a full orchestra or big band.”
I didn’t find anything particularly negative in that, so I continued looking for something to explain when and why the prevailing attitude changed, and I found lots of references that just seemed to muddy the water. For example, I found this: “Tony Bennett – one of the world’s favorite crooners.” But I also found, “Bennett is a belter, not a crooner.”
Along with Bennett, Dean Martin, and the under-appreciated Dick Haymes, I had always thought of Frank Sinatra as the ultimate crooner, and one of his albums from his early days is titled, Sinatra – Birth Of A Crooner. However, I found many quotes similar to this one: “Sinatra is not, and never has been, a crooner.”
Bing Crosby was often called “the original crooner”, and I found that a fan group called “the devotees of colorful crooner Russ Columbo” compared him to Crosby — but then I also found Russ himself proclaiming, “I’m not a crooner – or a blues singer or a straight baritone.” Hmmm.
I found reference to a contestant on American Idol, describing how he’d been placed in the “sweet young crooner” category. And I found this quote on the website of another young singer wannabe: “Who doesn’t want to be a crooner? I’m not a crooner, but I aspire to be one.”
And here’s one about Keith Richards that probably doesn’t have anything to do with the question at hand, but I’m including it because I liked it: “He’s a guitar player, not a crooner!”
An opinion from football analyst John Madden, talking (in his unique way) about Snoop Dogg, “Snoop is not a crooner. A Crooner was the, ya know, the smooth guy, the smooth voice guy, I mean those kinda guys. I mean even on radio anymore you don’t get the crooners.”
And finally, I found the following written about an album by Rod Stewart, who over a career spanning forty years has managed to jump in and out of just about every genre around. “…It Had to Be You, the first in his series crooning….”
It would be easy to snicker at Stewart’s transformation from a big-haired rocker to crooner (and a lot of people have) but sometimes the road to Snickerville takes a detour. Fact is, Stewart has demonstrated a pretty good voice through the years, and the more you listen to him doing the old standards the better he sounds. He’s become bigger than ever by recording a series of albums of crooner tunes, and I have to admit that his version of at least one classic song has become a favorite of mine. It’s called “The Way You Look Tonight”. Try it and see what you think.
If there’s an simple answer to my original question – and I’m not sure there is – it might just be this: those who seem to want to disparage crooners are probably the same people who like to mock a lot of other feel-good things, by exercising a misguided sense of smug superiority. But crooners have been successfully crooning for a long time and will probably continue to do so, because that’s what most people like — including me, if you haven’t figured that out by now.