Making a Good Impression

The book I am currently narrating takes place during the “Big Band” era just prior to the advent of World War II, and it includes passages of dialogue delivered by well known personalities of the era.

Among those who utter words in this book are Walter Winchell, Walter Cronkite, Bing Crosby, Orson Wells, Harry James, Jack Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Will Rogers. As narrator, it is my job to integrate each and every one of these characters as smoothly as possible into the recording without calling undue attention to them in a way that distracts from their role in the story. That’s a lot of people. And they require much closer attention by the narrator to vocal characterization than characters whose hold on existence extends only to the imagination of the author.

When a well-known personality is no longer among the living, and enough time has passed to leave few if any potential or actual listeners who ever heard her or him speak, I can just come up with a rendering that seems appropriate to what is known of his style and/or personality, and no one will know whether he really sounded like that or not.  Wyatt Earp, for example, or, as discussed in a previous post, Al Capone, can be suggested without trying to replicate their tonality and speech patterns. But, of course, there are many renditions of Bing Crosby, and many impressionists over the years have replicated his dulcet baritone voice with uncanny accuracy. This means that that a lot of people know precisely what he sounded like. And thanks to YouTube, there will always be such people. When they encounter a performance in which that character speaks, they want it to sound at least something like her or him.

In circumstances like these, my approach is to try to provide as close an approximation of what Bing Crosby or Orson Wells or Jack Kennedy actually sounded like as I can, given that I will never rise to the level of dead-on accuracy that someone like the great impressionist of a bygone era, Rich Little, achieved. He is unrivaled in his ability to render impressions of the likes of Jimmy Stewart, Bing Crosby,  Johnny Carson, or Carol Channing with which he entertained television and nightclub audiences in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s.

As it turns out, I can actually do a pretty good impression of Walter Cronkite. And, thanks to Vaughn Meader’s wildly popular “The First Family” record album in the 1960s, I can pull off a reasonable version of Jack Kennedy without too much effort. But as familiar as Bing Crosby is to people, and as many renditions of his voice as there are out there, it does not come easily to me to develop the right combination of speech patterns, rate, pitch and intonation to really nail his iconic informal patter, let alone his singing voice.

YouTube is my tool of choice for honing my “impressions.” Its archive of news clips, television segments, and recordings of performances provides ready access to the voices and mannerisms of nearly any celebrity of the past half dozen or so decades.

So as I sit before the mic in my dark little padded studio, blithely reading along, and suddenly my protagonist is introduced to Bing Crosby who is sitting at a table in New York City’s Stork Club, the recording process screeches to a halt, while I pause to spend an hour or so watching YouTube videos of Crosby trading barbs, for example, with Bob Hope in a scene from The Road to Morocco while Ava Gardner looks on. Next step is to record take after take of the lines I must perform until I think I can offer a sense that I really am Crosby commenting that the case of wine he recently received from the Stork Club’s owner: “Must’ve cost more than a year’s salary for Hope’s joke writers.”

Fortunately, I am of sufficient age to have heard most of these people in their heyday. That helps with Walter Winchell, for instance, who rattled out his celebrity gossip-based radio reports to “Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea.” And I watched and listened nightly to Walter Cronkite as he delivered the evening news in a way that made him the most trusted man in American long after his stint ended as play-by-play announcer for the Sooners football team at Oklahoma University, as the audiobook has it. I have a tonal range sufficient to emulate the basso profundo pronouncements of Orson Wells, if not the precise midwestern accent that characterized his classic radio performances on The Mercury Theatre on the Air. But Harry James? Kind of a Texas drawl, but not quite. Toughest one I ran across.

So if you ever buy this book, and get to the passage that takes place in the Stork Club, you may be less than impressed with me as a spot-on impressionist of personalities of the big band era. But when you come to the passage that has Bing Crosby responding to protagonist, Lance Roark’s admiration of a recent Crosby box office hit, try to suspend disbelief and imagine that my interpretation of “der Bingo” conveys just enough casual nonchalance to make you believe it’s somewhat in the vein of the iconic Rich Little as he nails the way the crooner would sound tossing off a joke at the expense of his road picture buddy, Bob Hope.