20 Jun 2013

James Melton: The Tenor of His Times

Those of us of a certain age have fond memories of James Melton, who entertained our parents starting in the 1930s and the rest of us in the 1940s and beyond on recordings, the radio, and films.

Some also remember that he sang a limited number of roles for a few years at The Metropolitan Opera. Fortunately, many of his popular recordings have been available for some time, and an operatic glimpse of him can be viewed in a scene from La Traviata in the film, The Ziegfeld Follies.

However, The lack of print material has been very frustrating for his most ardent fans. Opera News had a feature article on him recently, but little else has appeared. Fortunately, we now have a splendid book by his daughter, Margo Melton Nutt. She attests that she spent “twenty plus” years writing it, and the book has been well worth the wait. Drawing on family letters and newspapers (thanks mainly to her mother’s voluminous scrap books), she has interwoven her father’s dynamic life with her own participation and memories in a volume redolent of early triumph and later troubles.

The author has mingled two approaches — a biography of her famous father with a sort of coming-to grips memoir of her participation in that life. Biographically, the book proceeds conventionally about Melton until Ms. Nutt is old enough to know her father and begin to garner her own memories of him. We are indebted to Ms. Nutt for a meticulous narration from his birth until hers in 1946 and then to his death in 1961. We learn of his youth, his eventual gravitation to singing, and the early years of his professional life until his peak and maturity in the 1940s. To depict that time, Ms. Nutt employs the voice of the conventional biographer/narrator interspersed with sometimes brief, sometimes lengthy quotations from the scrapbooks and letters. The biographer’s voice appears in conventional print while the letters and scrapbook entries are in italics. The skillful blending of these two facets belie the fact that the author is not an experienced biographer. The years, triumphs, and troubles smoothly roll by with clear prose in 21 aptly titled chapters, such as “Young Man with a Saxaphone” (his earliest non-singing performances); “Radio Days” (a reminder of how important the radio was to a performing career in those decades); “The Autorama” (the culmination of his automobile collecting days). The italicized material is highly apposite in that it clearly supports whatever aspect of life, incident, or character is before us.

Chapters 1 through 14 limn his artistic, personal, and financial growth. The final third begins with Chapter 15, “The Best of Everything,” characterized by the following lines: “During this midpoint of his career, the more he sang the harder he worked, the more he thrived.” These and the following pages carry us through his peak years in preparation for the decline that was to come.

The author introduces her arrival on the scene (Chapter 16, “My Little Girl, Pink and White as Peaches and Cream . . .” with these lines: “My parents’ wonderful life seemed complete, but something was missing.” She narrates their feelings about the lack of a child and reveals their joy over her adoption in 1946 when she was 3 months old. From this point in the book, we know that little by little Melton’s story will be filtered through her own personal observations, not just through third persons, newspapers, and scrap books. Here the memoir takes over to very strong effect. I will leave it to readers to discover her personal awareness of her father as she witnessed his stunning success, his sad decline, and untimely death.

Despite the later darkness with which she apparently has come to grips, Ms. Nutt is obviously proud of her father, and she deserves to be proud of her book. Not only is it engagingly and informatively narrated; it is also handsomely and clearly printed in soft cover measuring 6 x 9 inches, generously illuminated by many photos.

Ms. Nutt clearly states her purpose: “This book was never intended to be an exhaustively detailed and footnoted biography — rather it is a daughter’s portrait of the fascinating man who was her father,” who she truly believes was, The Tenor of His Times. She has achieved surpassingly well.

This book is also available from Amazon.com in soft cover and Kindle formats.

Dr. William C. Clayton

Dr. Clayton has taught college English for 58 years and currently. He holds a Ph. D. in Renaissance literature from New York University. He is currently an Adjunct Professor of English at Nassau College, Long Island, and lives with his wife Christine on Long Island.