Vaughn De Leath

Vaughn De Leath

From Wikipedia
Vaughn De Leath

Vaughn De Leath in the 1920s
Background information
Birth name Leonore Vonderlieth
Born September 26, 1894
Mount Pulaski, IllinoisUnited States
Died May 28, 1943 (aged 48)
Buffalo, New York, United States
Genres JazzcroonerDixieland
Occupations Singermusicianradio performer, broadcasting executive
Years active 1920s-1930s
Labels Various

Vaughn De Leath (September 26, 1894 – May 28, 1943)[1] was an American female singer who gained popularity in the 1920s, earning the sobriquets “The Original Radio Girl” and “First Lady of Radio.” Although popular in the 1920s, De Leath is little known today.

De Leath was an early exponent of a style of vocalizing known as crooning. One of her hit songs, “Are You Lonesome Tonight?,” recorded in 1927, achieved fame when it became a hit for Elvis Presley in 1960.

Life and career

Early life

She was born as Leonore Vonderlieth in the town of Mount Pulaski, Illinois in 1894. Her parents were George and Catherine Vonderlieth. At age 12, Leonore relocated to Los Angeles with her mother and sister, where she finished high school and studied music. While at Mills College, she began writing songs, but dropped out to pursue a singing career. She then adopted the stage name“Vaughn De Leath.” Her vocals ranged from soprano to deep contralto. De Leath adapted to the emerging, less restrictive jazz vocal style of the late 1910s and early 1920s.

Main career

In January 1920, the inventor and radio pioneer Lee DeForest, brought her to his studio in New York City‘s World Tower, where De Leath sang “Swanee River” in a cramped room. Most radio listeners at the time were only equipped with crystal radio, which limited audio fidelity. This performance is sometimes cited as the first live singing broadcast (although this is disputed by some historians). According to some historical accounts of this incident, having been advised that high notes sung in her natural soprano might shatter the fragile vacuum tubes of her carbon microphone’s amplifier, De Leath switched to a deep contralto and in the process invented “crooning”, which became the dominant pop vocal styling for the next three decades.

By 1921, in the formative years of commercial radio, De Leath began singing at WJZ, in Newark, New Jersey (a station later known as WABC in New York City). She also performed on the New York stage in the early to mid 1920s, but radio became her primary medium, and she made a name for herself as a radio entertainer.

Her recording career began in 1921. Over the next decade she recorded for a number of labels, including EdisonColumbiaOkehGennettVictor, and Brunswick. She occasionally recorded for major label subsidiaries under various pseudonyms.  These included Gloria Geer, Mamie Lee, Sadie Green, Betty Brown, Nancy Foster, Marion Ross, Glory Clark, Angelina Marco, and Gertrude Dwyer. De Leath had a highly versatile range of styles, and as material required could adapt as a serious balladeer, playful girl, vampish coquette, or vaudeville comedienne.

De Leath’s recording accompanists included some of the major jazz musicians of the 1920s, including cornetist Red Nichols, trombonist Miff Mole, guitarists Dick McDonough and Eddie Lang, and bandleader Paul Whiteman. She demonstrated a high level of instrumental ability on the ukulele, and occasionally accompanied herself on recordings. In performance she played banjo, guitar, and piano. She also recorded ukulele instruction records.

In 1923, she became one of the first female executives to manage a radio station, WDT, in New York City, on which she also performed. In 1928, she appeared on an experimental television broadcast, and later became a special guest for the debut broadcast of Voice of Firestone Radio Hour. She also was one of the first American entertainers to broadcast to Europe via transatlantic radio transmission.

De Leath made her last recording in 1931 for the Crown label. She made her final nationwide network performances in the early 1930s. In her waning years, she made radio appearances on local New York stations, including WBEN in Buffalo.

Her 1925 hit recording, “Ukulele Lady“, was used in the 1999 filmThe Cider House Rules.


In 1931, De Leath sued Kate Smith for using the “First Lady of the Radio” designation.  Although Smith desisted for a time, she resumed the mantle after De Leath’s death.

Marriages and death

De Leath was married twice, to Leon Geer (an artist whom she married in 1924, and from whom she was divorced in 1935), and then to Irwin Rosenbloom, a musician.

Prior to her death in Buffalo, New York, she had had considerable financial difficulties, complicated by a drinking problem which contributed to her early death. Her obituary in The New York Times stated her age at death as 42. Her ashes were buried in her childhood home of Mount Pulaski, Illinois.


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