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Vaughn DeLeath, although forgotten today, was a household name in the 1920s. She was born in Mt. Pulaski, IL, in 1894 (according to her birth certificate — most sources say 1896) and her origins in show business are obscure. However in 1921, she was in on the ground floor of radio, singing in Chicago over WJZ. DeLeath's success on the air in the earliest days of radio was largely due to her endurance; able to accompany herself on banjo, ukulele, guitar, and piano, DeLeath could literally entertain for hours at a time when there was an excess of programming time and scant material to go on the air with.
By 1923, DeLeath's power and popularity in radio grew to where she was the first woman executive in the medium, running WJZ and a small network of low power stations. This proved a bit much for even her considerable ability, and by 1925 DeLeath returned to performing full-time. She made her debut on recordings in 1922, and made dozens of records under her own name and a plethora of pseudonyms; most frequently as "Gloria Geer," but also as Mamie Lee, Sadie Green, Betty Brown, Nancy Foster, Marion Ross, Glory Clark, Angelina Marco, and Gertrude Dwyer. She literally appeared under one name or another for just about every record label active in the 1920s.
In 1928, DeLeath appeared on experimental television broadcasts, and in 1928 or 1929 DeLeath was the featured guest when the Voice of Firestone Radio Hour went on the air for the first time. For some time Vaughn DeLeath had billed herself as "the First Lady of Radio," and in 1931 DeLeath sued singer Kate Smith for co-opting this tag. Smith withdrew, instead using her other trademark "the Sweet Songbird of the South," although after Vaughn DeLeath died Smith resumed her use of "the First Lady" designation. It was a bittersweet victory, as after a final session for Eli Oberstein's Crown label in 1931, Vaughn DeLeath disappeared from entertainment altogether. Little is known about DeLeath's last decade, but it is a matter of record that at her death at age 48 the "First Lady of Radio" was living in poverty as an alcoholic.
Vaughn DeLeath is something of an acquired taste, as she sang in a low, reedy voice and sometimes favored mawkish, sentimental material. DeLeath claimed to have created the vocal style of crooning, as it registered better on early radio sets than did the high soprano voice in which she was trained. Her best-known recording over the years was probably the version of "The Man I Love" she sang with Paul Whiteman's Concert Orchestra for Columbia, however in 1999 her recording of "Ukulele Lady" was used in the film The Cider House Rules. On recordings where DeLeath accompanies herself, she demonstrates a high level of instrumental ability, and possesses an amazing vocal range. On her (1923!) recording of "Comin' Home" for the Plaza Music Company, DeLeath even scat sings a whole chorus, anticipating Louis Armstrong by almost a decade. Although jazz critics have never taken her work seriously, DeLeath must have been an astounding talent on radio in the days of crystal sets and cat's whiskers, and was a major talent within vaudeville-styled pop singing traditions. The jury is still out on the issue, yet Vaughn DeLeath may have had a minor, though significant, impact on the development of early jazz singing as well.