Music with a Western theme, played in the predominant swing style but perhaps with a bit of “twang,” was immensely popular in the 1940s. Gordon Jenkins, no stranger to hit songs, had immense success with a tune dedicated to the San Fernando Valley. The song was especially popular with GIs, whose desire to return home and perhaps settle in a place like San Fernando Valley was much on their minds. Both Bing Crosby and Johnny Mercer charted with their recordings, although, ironically, Jenkins disliked the song immensely. His son commented, “He wanted to keep making money off of it, but he also wished there was a way to do it without anybody hearing the thing.”
Here we feature Dick Thomas, a nightclub performer who was popular throughout the 1940s. His interpretation of “San Fernando Valley” leaves nothing to be desired. Thomas was appearing on local Pennsylvania radio in the mid-1930 when his family pulled up stakes and resettled in Hollywood. The young singer was soon hired to perform at the Hollywood Tropics nightclub, an engagement that would last close to a year. In early 1944 Thomas found himself in Manhattan, performing at the Village Barn in Greenwich Village. Here he was heard by Soundies producer Ben Blake and hired for a series of three shorts.
Thomas is accompanied by a small group led by Frank Novak. While not well known today, Novak was one of the busiest studio musicians in New York City during the 1930s and ‘40s. He was a multi-instrumentalist so proficient on a variety of instruments that an onscreen introduction for a 1933 short subject jokingly reads, “The musicians union placed charges against Frank Novak Jr., … claiming he is keeping thousands of musicians out of work. There’s hardly an instrument he can’t play and good.” The remainder of the group, both on soundtrack and screen, is unknown, although Milan Hartz, trumpet, and Richard the Richard Von Hallberg, string bass, might be seen and/or heard. (it’s certain that the soundtrack was recorded by a larger group than we see on the screen.) One of the high points of the performance is a short trio interlude by three ocarinas, a unique sound that is rarely heard today.
While Dick Thomas is a very fine vocalist, the real star of the Soundie is Gordon Jenkins’ composition and lyrics, and there is little question why it became such a hit. Yee haw!