Arthur Godfrey ► A Monday Musical Appreciation

Celebrating a birthday today is Arthur Godfrey, born in 1903. Godfrey rose from a lowly radio announcer to being one of ‘Merka’s biggest celebrities.

Godfrey served in the Navy as a radio operator. Later he joined the Coast Guard, where he appeared on a local Baltimore radio show. When he left the Coast Guard in 1930, he got a job as a radio announcer at a Baltimore station, followed by a stint in Washington, D.C.

While laid up after a car crash, Godfrey listened to his competition. According to the WikiWackyWoo:

[H]e decided to listen closely to the radio and realized that the stiff, formal style then used by announcers could not connect with the average radio listener. The announcers spoke in stentorian tones, as if giving a formal speech to a crowd and not communicating on a personal level. Godfrey vowed that when he returned to the airwaves, he would affect a relaxed, informal style as if he were talking to just one person. He also used that style to do his own commercials and became a regional star.

He kicked around in radio until:

Godfrey became nationally known in April 1945 when, as CBS’s
morning-radio man in Washington, he took the microphone for a live,
firsthand account of President Roosevelt’s funeral procession. The
entire CBS network picked up the broadcast, later preserved in the Edward R. Murrow and Fred W. Friendly record series, I Can Hear it Now.
Unlike the tight-lipped news reporters and commentators of the day, who
delivered news in an earnest, businesslike manner, Godfrey’s tone was
sympathetic and neighborly, lending immediacy and intimacy to his words.
When describing new President Harry S. Truman‘s
car in the procession, Godfrey fervently said, in a choked voice, “God
bless him, President Truman.” Godfrey broke down in tears and cued the
listeners back to the studio. The entire nation was moved by his
emotional outburst.

In the meantime, he released songs that could never be played on the radio in today’s manufactured outrage society.

Godfrey kept moving up. It was far simpler times and Godfrey’s folksy charm was just perfect for the times, where he eventually became one of tee vee’s biggest stars. It started in 1948 with Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, the precursor to today’s reality talent shows. It was simulcast on both radio and that new invention called television. By 1952 Arthur Godfrey Time was also running on radio and tee vee. Also according to the Woo:

skills as a commercial pitchman brought him a large number of loyal
sponsors, including Lipton Tea, Frigidaire, Pillsbury cake mixes and Liggett & Myers‘s Chesterfield cigarettes.

He found that one way to enhance his pitches was to extemporize his
commercials, poking fun at the sponsors (while never showing disrespect
for the products themselves), the sponsors’ company executives, and
advertising agency types who wrote the scripted commercials that he
regularly ignored. (If he read them at all, he ridiculed them or even
threw aside the scripts in front of the cameras.) To the surprise of the
advertising agencies and sponsors, Godfrey’s kidding of the commercials
and products frequently enhanced the sales of those products. His
popularity and ability to sell brought a windfall to CBS, accounting for a significant percentage of their corporate profits.

Here is sample of his television work:

And, Godfrey continued to pump out music that the public bought by the barrel full.

Miami renamed 41st Street Arthur Godfrey Road after him

While Godfrey came across as everyone’s favourite avuncular uncle, behind the scenes he was a control freak and abusive to the “Little Godfreys,” which is what he called his supporting company.

Then came the Julius LaRosa incident, which burst Godfrey’s carefully cultivated personality. According to many reports, jealousy was partially to blame. Godfrey had hired LaRosa as a nobody, after he wowed the audience of Talent Scouts. Eventually LaRose became one of the most popular performers on the show, his fan mail outpacing Godfrey’s. Watch:

The public turned against him and that was the beginning of the end for Godfrey. “No humility,” the phony excuse Godfrey made after-the-fact for firing LaRosa, became a national punchline. Comedians from coast to coast made fun of Godfrey.

While Godfrey remained in show biz for several decades after that, he never again held the huge audience he had during the height of his career.

About Headly Westerfield

Calling himself “A liberally progressive, sarcastically cynical, iconoclastic polymath,” Headly Westerfield has been a professional writer all his adult life.

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