Buddy Clark, who was born in 1912 and died in 1949, had a hard, long climb up the ladder of success until he was considered to be on a par with Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, but it all came crashing down—literally—when his rented private plane ran out of fuel and was forced to make an emergency landing on Beverly Boulevard in West Los Angeles. Clark was the only passenger to be severely wounded; he made it to the hospital but died there of his injuries a few hours later, thus snuffing out the career of one of the finest singers America has ever produced.
It was a shame in so many ways, not least because Clark suffered through many years of being well enough known to be liked but not well enough known to be famous, which is an entirely different thing. Born Samuel Goldberg, he was originally slated for a law career at Boston’s Northeastern University, but the siren call of show business was too much for the young man. He changed his name to Buddy Clark and made his recording debut as a tenor with Gus Arnheim’s Orchestra at the age of 20. He was strained-sounding as a tenor, so he lowered his voice by a couple of notes and became a high baritone. In this he was successful. His recording debut as a baritone was on a Freddy Martin record of Stars Fell on Alabama, made on September 14, 1934. Shortly thereafter he was hired by Benny Goodman as the male singer of his fledgling big band on the “Let’s Dance” radio program. Clark was a surprise hit on the show, singing both solos and duets with the perky Helen Ward, but only made two studio recordings with Goodman, a fairly sappy ballad titled Like a Bolt From the Blue (for Columbia, November 1934) and, much more excitingly, I’m Living in a Great Big Way for RCA Victor (April 1935). It’s not entirely clear why Clark left the Goodman band, but timing may have had a lot to do with it. Benny was signed to do a cross-country tour with the orchestra that summer because they were struggling financially. This was the tour that was to end with a resounding success at the Palomar Ballroom in California in August, which is what made Goodman’s name and ushered in the Swing Era, but of course neither Goodman nor Clark could foresee that. Buddy chose to remain behind in New York and try his luck getting radio jobs.
In this he was successful, becoming a staff vocalist for CBS radio before joining the Ben Bernie Show on NBC’s Blue network. Later on in the decade he became a fixture on both “Your Hit Parade” and CBS’s “Melody Puzzles” with singer Freda Gibson, who later changed her name to Georgia Gibbs. He also had a summer replacement show, “Buddy Clark’s Summer Colony,” with Hildegard and the Leith Stevens Orchestra. He also continued to record with a bewildering variety of bands including Johnny Hodges (A Sailboat in the Moonlight, uncredited!), Lud Gluskin, Eddy Duchin and Wayne King. In 1938 he had a top-20 hit on Brunswick, Spring Is Here. And yet he still couldn’t break into the kind of stardom that Bing Crosby, Bob Eberle and others seemed to find so easily.
At this point we should take a moment to discuss Clark’s basic qualities as a singer and try to analyze why he wasn’t making it. As I’ve said, he had a high baritone which mellowed a bit in the following decade. It had a Crosby-type quality but was far more beautiful in tone. He had superb diction, first-class musicianship, and best of all, a natural sense of jazz “time,” as Frank Sinatra did. This doesn’t mean that Clark scatted all over the place; he did not; but when he sang you could feel the subtle beat shifts in the rhythm, and his total command of where he was rhythmically in the center of each phrase and note. He was a pleasure to listen to because he could swing without making a big issue of it. Even when he sang “straight,” the sensitive listener felt the time shifts within his phrasing. In some of his later work with Doris Day and Dinah Shore, he took full advantage of working with them and such swinging arrangers as George Siravo and Ted Dale to produce what I would call “pop jazz” performances.
Why he didn’t make it, in my own view, had as much if not more to do with his appearance than his obvious vocal gifts. With his long face and equally long, prominent nose, he looked more like a comedian than a romantic ballad singer. Remember that despite her classical voice training, Judy Canova had to go into “hillbilly” comic roles to make the big time. Ray Bolger had the skills of a classical ballet dancer, but eventually became a light comedian and “eccentric” dancer to make a living. And we won’t even go into how long it took Jim Nabors to be recognized as an outstanding singer, and Nabors had an even more classically-trained voice than Clark.
After working on the “Here’s to Romance” radio show with bandleader David Broekman in 1942, Clark enlisted in the Army.After the war, he resumed his career on “The Contented Hour” with Jo Stafford—another singer’s singer—and the orchestras of Victor Young and Percy Faith. In late 1946 he was finally signed by a big label, Columbia, who saw him as a potential rival to Vaughan Monroe on RCA. He made a wonderful recording of South America, Take it Away with Xavier Cugat in late 1946, but then hit the big time at last with his 1947 smash record Linda with the Ray Noble band. This was the song that Jack Lawrence wrote for his friend Lee Eastman on the birth of his baby daughter, the same Linda Eastman who later married Paul McCartney. Linda stayed in the #1 slot for weeks and in the Top 20 for six months, suddenly making Clark a hot property. Hit followed hit: How Are Things in Glocca Morra?, Peg O’ My Heart, I’ll Dance at Your Wedding, a double-sided hit record with Doris Day (Love Somebody b/w Confess), and even a cover version of Vaughan Monroe’s RCA hit Ballerina. This busy and exciting period also included some wonderful duets with Dinah Shore: Let’s Do It, ‘Swonderful and one of the most classic recordings of all time, Baby, It’s Cold Outside. Listening to these records, particularly the Cugat disc and the duets with Day and Shore, you can hear Clark’s fully mature style, insouciantly holding back on or slightly pushing the rhythm forward, fractioning beats, and just having a ball. Interestingly, during this period he also sang the Sam Coslow-Ken Lane tune Everybody Loves Somebody on the radio, a superb version that was much better than rival Frank Sinatra’s record of it—also for Columbia. Everybody didn’t become a hit until Dean Martin recorded it with a slow-triplet shuffle beat in the 1960s.
At the time of his death Clark had finally made some major film appearances, but mostly as a voice artist. He was the Master of Ceremonies in Walt Disney’s mostly animated film Melody Time, and as the singing voice of actor Mark Stevens in the role of songwriter Joe Howard in the film I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now.
Most of Clark’s postwar recordings—the Day and Shore duets notwithstanding—were of soft, relaxing ballads with heavy string accompaniment, which was extremely popular in America after World War II. It would have been interesting to see how he might have adapted to the more rhythmic songs of the mid-1950s. I seriously doubt that Clark would have bothered with Tutti Frutti or Blue Suede Shoes, but I can well imagine him singing the more rhythmic pop songs of the era. He might even have reunited with his old boss Benny Goodman once Columbia re-signed the King of Swing in the ‘50s. But anything Buddy Clark might have done post-1949 is pure speculation. The point is that he was unquestionably one of the most musical pop singers of his era, up there with Sinatra and Mel Tormé, and one with a finer natural voice than either. He was surely destined for superstardom at the time of his death, and it’s a real shame that his name has faded so badly since the early 1960s.
—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley