With the holiday season in full swing, chances are that your Christmas playlist is filled with vintage classics sung by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby and Perry Como. Whether or not these artists accepted the term, they are often labelled as 'crooners'.
But what is crooning anyway? And - in a style of singing where most people think of male singers - can women croon, too? (Spoiler: yes, of course they can!)
What is crooning?
Crooning comes from the verb 'to croon' which means to sing something quietly and gently. Crooning as a musical style became increasingly popular from the 1920s when microphones began to be used in radio and recording studios.
Unlike in opera and vaudeville where singers needed to project from a stage to be heard all the way to the back row, amplification suddenly made it possible to sing quietly and intimately while also reaching large audiences. This was new and very exciting!
Crooning reached the peak of its popularity from the 1940s to 1960s, but it's still relevant today. Although few contemporary artists will be known only for crooning, it is an important part of a jazz singer's toolkit.
Where does crooning come from?
Pop in the 1920s was much closer to classical singing than it is today, so it's not surprising that crooners (and others) sang lyrically.
Four prominent features of classical singing are also part of crooning. They are:
darkened, rich, mournful tone (in Estill Voice Training, this is called 'Sob Quality'.)
sweet tone, as in crying
vibrato (continuous as in classical singing or at the ends of phrases)
If you listen to a popular Christmas crooning number, you will hear each of these distinct elements in varying degrees. Check out this example - White Christmas by Bing Crosby.
Yes - women can croon!
As women can also sing smoothly, richly, sweetly and with vibrato, let's listen to some examples of female artists crooning.
Vaughn De Leath
According to some accounts, Vaughn De Leath is credited as being one of the inventors of the crooning style. Here's a 1927 recording of De Leath singing Are You Lonesome Tonight? Listen for the sweetness (the cry) in her tone and the smooth phrasing.
Known as the Queen of Swing in the 1930s, Mildred Bailey was a jazz and blues singer who was considered to be a crooner early in her career. She knew Bing Crosby through her brother Al Rinker and helped Crosby start his career in Los Angeles. Here she sings the Hoagy Carmichael lullaby Snowball in 1933.
Judy Garland was an extremely versatile performer who crooned when the song called for it, particularly early in her career. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas was sung by Garland in the 1944 musical film Meet Me in St. Louis. Could this song be sung smoother than this?
A former child blues singer, Toni Harper became a jazz singer who rose to stardom during the golden age of crooning. In this example, Harper sings That's What I Want for Christmas - a song originally written in 1935 for the film Stowaway starring Shirley Temple. The colour of her voice is both rich and sweet - and listen to how economically she uses vibrato.
Considered one of the most gifted singers of the 20th century, Sarah Vaughan had a huge range of expression. She was no stranger to crooning, which is demonstrated in this spectacular 1961 rendition of the well-known song My Favorite Things.
Diana Krall is a contemporary Canadian jazz singer and pianist. In this cool, close mic version of Christmastime is Here Krall mixes many vocal colours, including crooning.
Crooning developed at an exciting time when new technology made it possible to sing quietly for a mass audience. The intimacy of close mic is something we take for granted today in all genres of popular music. We really have the crooners - all of them - to thank for exploring and turning the intimate sound of the human voice into an art form that is still very familiar to us today.
Female artists were crooning right from the beginning. They played an important role in developing the style and making it as popular as it became. Hopefully after listening to the examples above, you'll have a better appreciation for these trailblazing women (and their contemporaries - there are lots more to discover!).
So go on, add them to your playlists - not just at Christmas but all throughout the year.
Stefan Holmström is a professional opera singer and voice teacher working with speakers and singers of all ages and abilities with a wide range of goals. He offers online and in-person vocal coaching and workshops from his studio in central Brighton in the UK. As an Estill Master Trainer (EMT), Stefan uses Estill Voice Training (EVT) as a baseline for safe and sustainable voice use.