Obituary: Arthur Tracy
Thursday 09 October 1997
Arthur Tracy was a great singing star of the 1930s and 1940s. His fine tenor voice and wide and varied repertoire made him a great favourite with radio listeners and vaudeville audiences.
He was born Abraham Tratserofski, in 1900, in Ukraine, and at the age of six was taken to the United States with his parents - the name Tracy was bestowed upon the family by immigration officers. He received an elementary education and, without any formal theatrical or musical training, produced and acted in school plays in his early teens.
His leaning towards show business took him into the Yiddish Theatre, as Yiddish was his first language. After winning a singing competition in Philadelphia, he was engaged by the eminent producers the Shubert brothers and played the leading roles in the operettas Blossom Time and The Student Prince. After touring the US and Canada, he returned to the Yiddish Theatre under the direction of Boris Thomashevski (the grandfather of the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas). He later worked as a solo artist in vaudeville but would return to his first love, the Yiddish Theatre, from time to time.
In 1931 Tracy was offered a recording contract with Columbia Records, for whom his output was prolific. His signature tune, which he used until the end of his career, was a romantic ballad called "Marta, Rambling Rose of the Wild Wood". When radio beckoned, he felt that he would benefit from a little mystery in his professional persona and adopted the name of "The Street Singer". However, a play of the same name by the British playwright Frederick Lonsdale was being presented on Broadway at that time, and so he titled himself "The Street Singer of the Radio" to avoid confusion (later abandoning the final three words).
He enjoyed great success on radio and soon returned to vaudeville, but this time as a headliner. He also appeared in Hollywood films, notably in The Big Broadcast (1932) with Bing Crosby.
Tracy came to Britain in 1932 to fulfil an engagement as top of the bill at the London Palladium. Instant success brought him bookings throughout Britain, starring at all the principal variety houses. Radio Luxembourg soon called for his services and he was engaged to do many series of programmes, notably commercials for a ladies' cosmetic product, "Tokalon Face Powder". He was a smooth talker and a natty dresser and soon became one of the smart set, enjoying a friendship with the Prince of Wales. He stayed in Britain, continuing his radio and music-hall career, and made four films, including Limelight (1936), with Anna Neagle as his leading lady, The Street Singer (1937), with Margaret Lockwood, and Follow Your Star (1938), with Lilli Palmer, which were very successful.
He returned to the US in 1940, continuing his career until his age and the emergence of the rock 'n' roll era made his particular image unfashionable. Nevertheless, his records still sell in great numbers today and his fan clubs in Britain and the US still kept in touch with him at his Manhattan West Side apartment, a veritable museum of posters, sheet music, records, tapes and press material. Only recently he was presented with a gold CD to mark the extraordinary sales of his work; he was the oldest star to receive such acclaim.
He visited Britain in the spring of 1995, making a live broadcast on Radio 2 on the John Dunn show. When I accompanied him to the BBC recording studio, it transpired that the news of his broadcast had been announced a day earlier and there was a crowd of his fans waiting for him, requesting autographs, taking photographs and cine films.
His English recording manager visited him and said: "Arthur, you're going to make it to 100 and when you do we will make a special album to commemorate the event." It was not to be.
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