Vaughn De Leath was born Leonore Vonderlieth on 26 September 1894 in the Chicago suburb of Mt. Pulaski, Illinois. Her parents were George and Catherine. At age 12, she moved to Los Angeles with her mother and sister. After finishing high school, she attended Mills College in the San Francisco area, but dropped out to begin her singing career.
One of the first radio crooners, she also wrote more than 500 songs and became known as “The First Lady of Radio.” When her contemporary, Kate Smith, also began using that title, Vaughn became known as “The Original Radio Girl.” She also threatened legal action, which forced Kate Smith to abandon use of that title, at least until after Vaughn passed away.
Hollywood Boulevard, 6600 block, South Side
At age 25, Vaughn went to New York City to record for radio pioneer and inventor, Lee DeForest. She sang Swanee River on the radio from a cramped studio in The World Tower, a performance which is often cited as the first broadcast to feature live singing. Supposedly, she was asked to abandon her natural soprano voice for a deeper contralto to prevent damage to the glass vacuum tubs in the carbon microphone!
A year later, Vaughn began singing for WJZ-AM Radio in Newark, New Jersey (later known as WABC). Although she also did a little work on the New York stage, Vaughn much preferred singing on the radio.
Throughout the Roaring 20’s, Vaughn recorded for several labels, including Edison, Columbia, Victor, Brunswick, Gennett and Okeh, using a variety of different names including Marion Ross, Betty Brown, Sadie Green, Gloria Geer, Mamie Lee, Nancy Foster, Glory Clark, Angelina Marco, and Gertrude Dwyer. She would often accompany herself on guitar, banjo, or piano, and became so proficient at the ukulele that she recorded several instructional records for that instrument.
In 1924, at age 30, Vaughn was married to an artist named Leon Geer. In 1928, Vaughn performed on an experimental television broadcast. By the time she was 29, she was managing WDT Radio in New York City. She was one of the special guests on the very first broadcast of the Voice of Firestone Radio Hour. She also was among the first to perform on broadcasts to Europe on transatlantic radio.
While working in New York, Vaughn lived in a house in Easton, Connecticut, where she had had her basement transformed into a replica of a Catholic Church. She divorced Leon in 1935 and later married fellow musician Irwin Rosenbloom.
Vaughn was among the first to record a hit version of I Wanna Be Loved By You, the song that became a signature number thirty years later for Marilyn Monroe. She also had a hit with a ballad that became one of Elvis Presley’s biggest hits, Are You Lonesome Tonight.
Here’s Are You Lonesome To-Night by Vaughn De Leath (The Radio Girl) transcribed from my personal copy of Edison 52044, an extra thick, 80 RPM, vertically-cut record!
I’ve discussed the history of this song in an earlier blog post, but I never went into detail on the life of Vaughn De Leath.
Her long struggle with alcoholism plunged Vaughn into financial trouble and illness which almost certainly contributed to her early death in Buffalo, New York, on 28 May 1943. She was just 48 years old. Her ashes were scattered at her childhood home in Illinois. You can see memories of her life at the Historical Society of Mount Pulaski, Illinois.
This is just one of many early recordings you’ll hear featured on MusicMaster Oldies as “Music that helped create rock and roll.”