I first heard the voice of John Raitt in 1973, when I was all of 10 years old. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine, that 28 years later, I would be having lengthy telephone conversations with him!
NR: How did you first grow interested in singing?
JR: When I was growing up, I was interested mostly in athletics. I sang in my dad’s YMCA camps, so I got over my fear of performing before an audience as far as singing was concerned. I was a trumpet player and I played in the high school orchestra—Fullerton High School. And the singing teacher in town was the tenor soloist at the church and the mail carrier, name was Gordon Drew.
My next door neighbor knew him pretty well and after I’d been singing for awhile, my friend said why don’t you go to Gordon Drew and sing for him and ask if you’ve got promise as a singer. So I went over and sang for him and he was impressed and said, “I’ll tell you what, I’ll give you singing lessons for my contribution to the YMCA.
So I went home and put the trumpet in the case, and started singing lessons. It was kind of interesting, and he had a couple of leads in the school production of The Desert Song. So he got me into that show and gave me the part of one of the bandits in the show and sang just a couple of lines. The reason he hired me is I was the only singer whose voice was loud enough to turn his back to the audience and still be heard. That was 1934.
So I just kept singing at Kiwanis Clubs, Rotary, Dad’s Y, the annual meetings and so forth. But mainly I was a champion athlete, won the state championship. Fullerton High School. Matter of fact I still have one state record in California. Because they don’t have the event anymore! I was able to throw the football 220 feet.
I had a track scholarship to the University of California. And they wouldn’t let me play football and of course I didn’t like that. After one semester, my brother was at the University of Redlands, which has a wonderful music department, and in fact that’s what made it a University because they had degrees in music. So after one semester I transferred to Redland.
The school was putting on a production of The Bartered Bride—I got the part of the old man and that was a step in that direction. I was in the glee club but I was also more interested in playing football and track at that time than singing. So when the track team was in SB university there, competing, the glee club would be in San Diego and of course I couldn’t be in both places, so I had to let myself out of that.
But the school, having this fine music department, their first opera presentation was Die Fledermaus, and I got the part of Dr. Falke in that. I was still predominantly just a Phys-Ed major and still just singing for fun.
I was going to try out for the Olympics so I didn’t take a teaching job. But Helsinki was bombed. It was 1940 and during the war and so they cancelled the Olympics. I had to scrounge around to get a job at the Beverly Wilshire branch of the LA YMCA. And I once again had to sing for my lunch and my dinner because I was getting paid so little.
Through the encouragement of the businessmen who operated in the small little village theater there, I went down to audition for the chorus of the Civic Light Opera, which was very popular at that time and was hired. So I gave up the YMCA job and started singing the chorus.
We did Pinafore with John Charles Thomas, and I was very impressed, you know. And loved the feeling of the musical theater. Just the chorus work gave me $35 a week.
And I auditioned out here in Pacific Palisades where I’m living now—strangely enough. Mary Martin and I always believed a lot in circles in life. Anyway—John Charles Thomas, who became my mentor, was living there. When I came out to Pacific Palisades, a lot of those baritones in those days were turning tenor.
You know, everybody wants to become something they’re not… basses want to sing high notes, and some of the tenors want to sing the low notes. So, he said, come on out. He was quite the little comedian, a wonderful character, and he tells me, “Hey kid, sing some of those archipelagoes.” (He meant arpeggios.)
So I sang and he said, “Well, I don’t know… you look like a baritone and that’s the American voice. Those are money notes up there for the baritone, but if you’re a tenor, you gottasing’em.” Said I think I’d rather be a good baritone than a half-baked tenor. So I took the advice.
The high lyric baritone is the most flexible of voices. You sing exactly where you talk and it is the best voice for the Broadway musical shows, because the composers seem to write up in that area. For instance in The Pajama Game, in Sid’s “Hey, There,” it has a section that goes f, f, f, f#. The baritones can’t maneuver it, they have to put the keys down to do it. Not only that, the tessitura is actually too tough for them to sustain that, you know. So I was the bane of a lot of fellas who tried to take over from me.
NR: Did you continue to perform while studying with John Charles Thomas?
JR: Yes. I continued at the Civic Light Opera, and I got a kind of break… it sounds like a press agent’s dream. I was on the MGM lot with a friend of mine who was a stunt performer. Everybody was at MGM in those days. I went out there to have lunch with him and of course the commissary is just full and we had to wait a half an hour or so.
We didn’t get out till about 2:00 and right along, outside the commissary are the little tech director’s offices. We finished and one of the last ones out of the commissary and suddenly, I was approached by a wild-eyed guy saying, “Where’d you come from?” And I said, we had lunch here. “No-no-no… where’d you come from?” I told him, and he asked, “Do you sing?” I said, how do you know? “Well, I just had a hunch…want to test for a film?” I said well that’d be fun. He said “You report here tomorrow morning at 6:00 for makeup and the costumes, and we’ll make a test.”
So I got up early and went over and got the costume. They gave me Clark Gable’s boots to wear. And reported on the set. It was for a part, a lead in a picture with the Marx Brothers in a picture called Go West. We were shooting up until lunch, and afterward, and Fred Wilcox came up to me and said, “I’ve got a little disappointment for you… I want you to sing in this test. But all the accompanists had gone home after lunch… can you sing this unaccompanied?” And I said of course I can.
So I used that old YMCA background. It’s one thing to learn the song, it’s another to perform it, you know, in a short time. But you gotta be cocky and you gotta go for it when you’re that age especially. So I sat on the stool and I sang this song. Well, Monday morning, I was called in to see Jack Cummings, who was the son-in-law of Louis B. Mayer, who was going to produce the film, and he said, “Who authorized this test? Where in the hell did you come from?” I told him and he said, “Well, let’s do it right.”
The following Friday I made a good test. But Dinah Powell, William Powell’s wife, called Mousey, was the lead in the film and it was pretty exciting. I got word about the next week that it wasn’t going to happen because Eddy Bassell, the director, who was brought from Broadway to direct and he had never directed the Marx Brothers.
So he didn’t want to take a young leading man who’d never been in pictures before. Everybody liked me except him, and he was a little scared to do it. I was put on a six month stock contract at MGM. I did a film called Flight Command, didn’t sing in it, had a small part. I did do a song in Billy the Kidwhich starred Robert Taylor, and did other small bits as well.
NR: While at MGM did you continues your performances in opera?
JR: That came after. I first got a job at the Temple Baptist Church in Glendale, and had an agent that would book me for the women’s clubs, which we called the rubber chicken circuit. I then had an opportunity with the American Musical Theater of Pasadena.
They established a group to perform operas in English, headed by Dr. Richard Laird, who was the conductor of the Pasadena Symphony, and George Huston, who had working with Ube Mamoogian, who was my director later on in Carousel at Eastman School of Music, and Paul Horigan, part of that group… some very good people.
George was a singer himself and played the lead in the “Lone Rider” series, it was called. He got hold of thee original play that The Barber of Seville was taken from, which was by Beaumarchais, a playwright in France. It was French of course so they translated that and did the wonderful work of shortening a lot of what Rossini had done in his opera. And we had George London, who later became the great bass-baritone at the MET, and Howard Keel was in the chorus…
NR: Was he now?
JR: It was a great group, good looking people who worked very hard. We opened and it was just a big hit, in the 3000 seat Civic Theater in Pasadena. The Pasadena Society just took us in their arms and I was an instant sensation as Figaro in Barber. We did it about 30 times. And so because of that I got a coaching scholarship from Arthur Alexander. He was one of the few guys who would accompany himself himself in concert at Carnegie Hall. He loved to show me off to people like John Boles, who was one of the students, looked like Clark Gable, and he was a pretty good singer.
NR: Yes—he was in the film versions of Rio Rita and The Desert Song.
JR: Right! So I would come in and so the Traviataand the high turn of the high C. And he’d say that’s a pretty good tenor. How about the Prologue from Pagliacci? And I did that and I wound up one day not able to sing. I went to one of the best surgeons I knew in town that I was recommended to, and he sais you have an ulcer on your vocal cords.
I said, boy, I have a concert coming up with Leonard Pennario at Scottsdale College in six weeks! What am I going to do? He said, “Take this pencil and pad and I don’t want you to utter a sound for two weeks, not a whisper, nothing. I want you to write everything you want.” I was so scared that that’s exactly what I did.
It made all my singing buddies make fun of me of course. But I was able to come back. I then decided I had better learn to sing. Must have got in some bad habits. I went from Figaro to Escamillo in Carmen, which is wrong for me. It’s a typical baritone role but I could do it because as a member of the church choir I was singing bass. I probably should have been singing tenor, it probably would have been easier for me.
NR: Did you find another teacher to study with, who helped your technique?
JR: The star of Carmenbrought me her singing teacher, Richard Cummings, who was the grandson of Lamperti in a sense. He had these principles in singing, which he tried to recreate what was done in the Italian and transferred it to the English language. Anyway I still had a little bit of trouble and I went to George Huston, the director that I mentioned, and I said to him, do you think Dick Cummings would work with me? He said “I don’t know, he’s not the kind of guy that’s gonna grab you and say I want to teach you.”
I went over to him and said to Dick, can you help me? He replied, “I don’t know, you’re such a good performer, I saw you in The Barber of Sevilledoing Figaro, and you fooled me, but now that I hear you doing Escamillo, I hear some things I don’t know if I can get them out or not.” The reason being, a lot of baritones of that day were making the frontal sounds, got by with it.
In those days you go to Italy and they say “Frontale, chitale.” The wide open, almost yelled sound. Has no vibrato, no color. The thing is, we train our ears not to do that. I said I’m willing to give it a try but I don’t know if I’m going to able to pay you. “Well, I didn’t ask to be paid and I’m going to tell you what you have to do. You’re going to have to come to the studio every day, because you’re going to get it fast or you won’t get what I’ve got to give to you.”
I said earlier I sang bass in the church choir and that forced the larynx down out of position. I don’t have the voice down below and can’t put that much pressure on it. One day it happened and I didn’t like the sound. And he said, “Don’t fight it, that’s it!” But up my voice went, and I lost the whole bottom. To this day I have to be careful not to sing too heavy on the low register of my voice, because it goes back to that old bad habit that I had.
So—now I’m making some good strides and realizing that he’s probably right. He also said early on to me, “You know, you were raised out here in California and you have unusual enunciation words. For instance you say “warshed” instead of “washed.” And if you say warsh for wash, it makes a different sound.”
He had the feeling that if you enunciate properly in any language that it was right and that was all you had to do. All the notes I would get from him would be this or that was mispronounced, so the preparation wasn’t made to jump a fifth and you had trouble up there, because that the proper pronunciation wasn’t there.
I hear all the time—[Here he demonstrated with “If I Loved You”—first in his trademark clean fashion with pure, clean intonation of vowels, then with a puffed-up distortions of vowels]—that’s a whole different sound and color. That was an important revelation to me, and now when I hear singers who don’t enunciate properly, I can’t stand it.
Like with sopranos—they change the vowels and they say it’s easier. I say now, call out loud the word “hey!” and then sing the same word… and they say, “I can’t sing that.” But you just said it, why can’t you sing it? The other one after proper enunciation was proper emotional control.
Didn’t say anything about breathing. People ask, what do you say about breathing and I say I don’t know, I’ve been breathing for 85 years. What’s the problem? It’s hard to explain to young singers, how to teach them what I’ve learned and I do the master classes. I auditioned over 500 people in my lifetime. If I could put that voice in that body and that personality… it doesn’t happen.
And I hear a lot all through the years about the operatic approach and the musical theater approach. I read about Rodney Gilfrey, this young baritone out here, had a big article in the paper about how he has to coach differently for opera and musical theater and I have to take umbrage with that.
I’ve got some old recordings by Stracciari, the Italian baritone. Most singers sing (demonstrates altered vowels, then clear vowels). Just like you were talking! Bjoerling was a great singer for that—I loved him. But all the guys, the Tibbetts, the Thomas’s. Thomas would say, “Make the nose bleed, son! That’s the way you sing!” You know make the sound. It’s a distortion as far as I’m concerned.
Raitt tells about the roundabout way he was cast in the original production of Carousel in the next installment.