Arthur Tracy, the last of the radio giants of the 1930s, who thrilled millions of listeners with his powerful tenor and was known to radio fans as the “Street Singer,” died Sunday at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. He was 98.
Tracy’s stardom came almost instantaneously after he got a tryout on CBS in 1931. His show was often on the air several times a week, and despite the fact that record sales during the Depression were poor, Tracy’s records sold very well.
“Around the corner and down your way comes the Street Singer,” the announcer would say. His theme song was “Marta, Rambling Rose of the Wildwood.”
Several years ago, Tracy told Hollywood historian Miles Kreuger that when he went on the air he adopted the sobriquet the Street Singer not only because he planned to sing songs from all over the world, but also because he didn’t want to embarrass his family by using his real name if he turned out to be a failure.
Far from failing, within a year Tracy co-starred with some of radio’s most celebrated names, including Bing Crosby and Kate Smith in Paramount’s “The Big Broadcast” in 1932. In the film, Tracy introduced the song “Here Lies Love,” which became a major hit.
His radio and recording repertoire was varied: love songs, ballads and hit pop tunes. He sang in several languages, including Spanish, Italian and German, and always with the perfect diction of the professionally trained artist.
In the mid-’30s, Tracy made a successful tour of English music halls, then stayed on to appear in four films, among them “Limelight,” “Command Performance” and “The Street Singer.”
He returned with the outbreak of World War II, and after the United States entered the war, he entertained American troops.
But he gradually became less active as a performer as he became more and more interested in his real estate investments, which made him a multi-millionaire.
He had a comeback of sorts in the early ’80s when a recording he made of “Pennies From Heaven” was used in the movie of the same name.
“I had no idea the picture was being made,” he said after it came out. “In fact, I didn’t even know about the BBC television series called ‘Pennies From Heaven’ that inspired the film until I began getting stacks of mail from England.”
He went to a screening of the film and recalled that “coming out of the theater, people were saying, ‘It sounds like Arthur Tracy.’ They still knew the voice.”
Publicity about the film led to a gig at a popular local nightspot, the Cookery, and a small role in the 1988 film “Crossing Delancey.” He also appeared in the touring company of the play “Social Security.”
Tracy, a native of Philadelphia, dropped out of architecture studies at the U. of Pennsylvania to take up voice training and pursue a career in singing.
He came to New York in 1924 and landed roles in various productions. He didn’t get his real break until 1931, when he filled in for another singer on radio station WMCA. That landed him a network tryout on CBS.
Within a couple of weeks, he said later, the network received 2,000 letters about him and his tryout became a permanent spot.
He is survived by a brother, Bert, and his former wife Blossom, who was with him at his bedside at the time of his death.