Margaret Whiting

When the Editorial Advisory Board selected the legendary Richard Whiting as the subject of a Featured Songwriter article, the selection of Featured Artist became a no-brainer. Daughter Margaret was a mere 14 years old when Richard Whiting died, but she was already something of an industry insider.

Friends of the family knew that in addition to inheriting her father’s musical aptitude, his keen intelligence was also genetic. One of these friends was lyricist Johnny Mercer, who almost immediately began using Margaret as a vocalist on radio programs and local performances in Los Angeles. And when he launched Capitol Records in 1942, Margaret Whiting was one of the first artists signed to the label.

Nat King Cole is generally credited as the artist who gave credibility to Capitol. The Capitol Records Tower, in fact, was originally known as “The House that Nat Built.” Both statements are true, however, it is a sign of those times that only a male artist is mentioned. Had it happened today, a female artist might’ve received equal billing. For Capitol Records, that female artist was Margaret Whiting.

Whiting’s first hit record for Capitol was more or less imediate. It was catalog #126 for the label, “That Old Black Magic.” The song — like many in the pre rock and roll era — was recorded by dozens of artists, with almost half a dozen versions charting at the same time. The top-selling version was by Glenn Miller, who positively ruled the charts at the time. Other hit versions were by Whiting, and by Frank Sinatra, who rendered it as a slow ballad. Whiting’s peaked at number 10, and the national audience was ready for more.

It should be noted at this point that Whiting’s billing on these early recordings was secondary to the bandleader. For “Old Black Magic” she was the feature vocalist for Freddie Slack and His Orchestra; on subsequent records Margaret was listed along with or below Billy Butterfield and His Orchestra, and Paul Weston and His Orchestra. An examination of these names is quite telling of the early years at Capitol: Whiting was a friend and protege of Mercer’s, Weston was the label’s musical director, and Butterfield was a star trumpeter with Benny Goodman whom Mercer hired as a bandleader. Like Butterfield, Slack was a second-banana who wanted to step out front; he was willing to work cheaper than a top name and so Mercer was able to sign him to an early Capitol contract.

In effect, Mercer took a handful of lesser-known musical pseudo-stars and launched a record label. The second record that Capitol released was a Freddy Slack song featuring a vocal by Ella Mae Morse. The song was “Cow Cow Boogie,” and it became a surprise million seller. Thus Whiting was part of a very new yet very successful young record company. She was given key songs to record as the label’s female vocalist, and many of these were minor chart successes as competitive covers.

It was a first recording (non-cover) of a song that would launch Whiting to superstardom. Butterfield was working on a unique trumpet solo for an odd number called “Moonlight In Vermont.” The music caught Whiting’s attention immediately, but she struggled with the unusual lyric structure. Simply put, the words were composed as sets of “haikus” and do not rhyme. They create imagery of rural Vermont, but do so in a rather impersonal manner. Whiting claims that she couldn’t make the song work until Mercer asked her to picture herself in the Vermont countryside, singing what she saw. The suggestion worked. Whiting’s vocal became an unforgettable “duet” with Butterfield’s trumpet; the effect was hypnotic and the record quickly sold over 2,000,000 copies.

Much like her father’s “Till We Meet Again” provided hope for the soldiers of World War I, “Moonlight In Vermont” instilled the same sense of longing for the boys fighting overseas in the 1940s. While not the definitive song of the era, it was one of the important ballads of the time and remained popular throughout the era. Incredibly enough, just as Margaret’s version began to fade from radio in 1945, a recording by Jo Stafford (also on Capitol) recaptured the public’s attention. With probably hundreds of additional versions recorded over the years, Whiting’s remains the preeminent recording.

Her next monster hit was a shared chart success in 1945. The song was “It Might As Well Be Spring,” and was typical of the era in that competing national record companies and regional labels all put out versions. Pop airwaves were much different at that time; during any given hour you might hear a song played three times by three separate recording stars. RCA might put out a Perry Como version, Decca would release a Bing Crosby recording, while Columbia might decide to offer a female recording by Doris Day. All three might be top ten hits, knowing that certain listeners had certain preferences. The variety was in the delivery, not so much in musical styles. This effect was further compounded by the fact that RCA records would be first to reach the New York market, Mercury had a delivery edge in the southeast, and Capitol of course had the edge in the west.

It was in this scenario that “It Might As Well Be Spring” became a top ten hit for Dick Haymes on Decca, Sammy Kaye on RCA, and Margaret Whiting on Capitol. The song was of course a Rodgers and Hammerstein creation for State Fair. Haymes’ version sold the best due to his starring role in State Fair — even though he didn’t sing that song in the film. Haymes peaked at number five, while Whiting more or less matched him by reaching number six at the same time. Kaye’s version, number eight, was no slouch.

1945 and 1946 saw Whiting as one of the top female vocalists, a close third to Doris Day and Dinah Shore. Whiting did outsell Day and Shore at certain times, but the public perception was unmoved. Day had much more universal star appeal, and Shore was clearly the superior vocalist of the day. Whiting, an attractive if sort of homely beauty, lacked Day’s cuteness and Shore’s charm. She opted for a more glamorous approach, wearing showy, off-the-shoulder gowns, pearls and other jewelry, and always the latest and biggest hairstyles. With Capitol based in Hollywood, as the label’s pre-eminent female vocalist she very much acted the part of a pampered, glamorous starlet — a forerunner to today’s pop divas.

After a string of decent selling hits in ’45 and ’46, Whiting had softer sales in 1947 but remained a solid presence on radio and records with several top 20 hits. Her record sales in ’47 were excellent, but a bit of a disappointment after the previous few years. She returned to the top of the charts in 1948 with the monster hit “A Tree In the Meadow,” which Mercer grabbed from British songwriter Billy Reid. “Meadow” topped the charts for a few weeks in late summer 1948, and sold well into 1949. The interesting thing to note about this song is that Whiting’s version was so definitive that competing discs didn’t fare well at all. In fact the best competing disc was by Monica Lewis with the Ames Brothers, and sales tapered off after just a couple weeks.

To focus on Whiting as “just” a recording star is misleading. Like other vocalists of the era, she made a number of film appearances and was a cultural icon. In 1949 Whiting became something of a country music star when she recorded “Slippin’ Around” with “cowboy” Jimmy Wakely. This marked a major shift in Whiting’s popularity. The song was her third million-seller, an early crossover hit that peaked at number one both on the pop and country charts. She had a few more pop hits following this record, including a top ten duet with Mercer on “Baby It’s Cold Outside” that scored just below the Dinah Shore/Buddy Clark version. But it’s no coincidence that Margaret scored higher on the country charts over the next few years than she did on the pops. While a few of her pop efforts of the early 1950s limped into the top 20, duets with Wakely landed 8 more in the country top 10. These country duets even scored better on the pop charts than most of Whiting’s solo efforts from the same period.

By the mid-1950s Whiting still had massive star appeal, she just didn’t sell many records. She dropped off the charts completely until she staged a comeback on London Records in 1966. A solid recording of “The Wheel of Hurt” put Margaret back on the pop charts, and rocketed to number one on the easy listening charts. (The easy listening chart was a haven for traditional pop in the 1960s and 1970s, evolving into adult contemporary today). Decked out in diamonds and furs, Whiting relished the role of diva and was again a household number, if perhaps mostly in older households. Interestingly enough, Whiting’s “Wheel of Hurt” has more of a country sound than even some of her Wakely recordings, and her styling almost sounds borrowed from the late Patsy Cline.

By the 1970s Whiting was a legendary star, well remembered for ruling the charts in the 1940s. Decked out in diamonds and gowns, she commanded center stage whenever she entered a room. Nevermind that she was now singing country songs on the cabaret circuit — Whiting was wealthy, glamorous, and still very much the diva. In the 1990s she raised eyebrows by marrying a gay porn star named Jack Wrangler, and seemed to travel with an entourage of young men…almost like Mae West, but not nearly as tawdry.

Fortunately the passing of time has brought Margaret Whiting’s star into better focus. In the new millenium she is remembered not as a diva, and neither for her country duets nor her curious love life. Instead she is regarded as one of the best-selling vocalists of the 1940s, and as a significant voice in the Great American Songbook.

— Rick Bolger